This is a sequel to Crab Sandwiches, Book One. It helps to have read the first one. This is a story about life and the end of it. Comments on this story can be sent to the author:


Crab Sandwiches
Book Two




Hutch sat beside the bed feeling like he'd been locked into some perverted loop in time, relentlessly repeating the worst days of his life. Starsky was back on chemo and had again spent the last few days hunched over a basin throwing up his guts. Two days had gone by, the IV infusions finished until next time, but some things never changed. The smell of sickness, sweat, and fear. Starsky was completely depleted after the first round--what would the next five hold, and could he survive them? Hutch had such a bellyache he was beginning to wonder if he were developing an ulcer. Just what he needed under the current circumstances. He couldn't get sick, too. With this in mind, he'd been working hard to eat right and get as much physical exercise as he could cram into his already overflowing schedule.

"Happy, happy New Year!" Huggy crowed, marching into the sickroom wearing an outfit guaranteed to brighten the darkest corners. He sported a bright red and yellow striped jacket, matching yellow shirt and red slacks. A red hat with a yellow band completed the ensemble. 1985 was printed across the front of the shirt in huge letters.

Next to his parrot-inspired clothing Daisy looked positively demure in a short black skirt and low cut black and white striped, boat-necked tee. As usual, she carried a covered picnic basket full of wonderful smelling goodies.

"Happy New Year," Hutch responded automatically, just as he'd been doing all day long, even though his mood was far from chipper. He glanced over at the occupant of the bed, surprised to see that Starsky had opened one eye and was watching the proceedings as if deciding whether he wanted to join in or not.

"You plannin' on entering the Rose Parade, Hug?" Starsky slurred, pulling himself up in the bed. Hutch reached over to fluff up the pillow, but Starsky shrugged him off.

"Bro! It's a whole new year and a whole new att-ti-tude," Huggy announced, puffing out his chest. "Me an' Daisy are gonna open a restaurant."

"I'm thinking of calling it 'Mama Bear's'," Daisy grinned, unpacking the bonanza of food she'd brought.

"Giving up 'The Pits', Huggy?" Hutch asked in astonishment. That would take getting used to. While Huggy had worked in various dining and drinking establishments, and in a range of other fields of endeavor, 'The Pits' had fit him like a 'T'. And it had become almost a second home to both Hutch and Starsky.

"No, 'course not, that's the cornerstone of our soon to be all encompassing network of food emporiums!" Huggy spread his hands wide, taking in half of Bay City in the sweep. "Bars, bakeries, restaurants, the Bear family will provide a haven of good food, fine drink, and scrumptious delights to all citizens of this fair metropolis."

"Superman lives here?" Starsky remarked with an enigmatic grin. At this point Hutch was happy for even the smallest signs of life from his partner. And as usual, Starsky was rising to the occasion, pulling out all the stops for his guests. He'd be exhausted after they were gone, leaving Hutch to deal with his grumpy disposition.

"Doesn't Superman live in Gotham City?" Hutch asked with a tad too much innocence. He knew full well he didn't, he just wanted to get Starsky's goat and rev him up a little.

"Hutch! When was the last time you read a comic?" Starsky protested, the light of indignation in his eyes.

"Blondie, everybody knows Batman and Robin live in G. Ci-ty." Huggy held out a bottle of champagne. Not as good a label as the one Hutch had shared with Starsky three days earlier, but not exactly Thunderbird, either. "Bubbly anyone?"

"I'll toast to your venture into the world of financial tycoons," Hutch agreed. "But Starsky gets…"

"Starsky wants champagne," Starsky said testily, reaching for a glass. "And Starsky can speak for himself."

Okay, Hutch thought silently, he was in for an argument later. Starsky was in a peevish mood and not about to hold it in.

"I've brought sparkling apple cider if anyone wants it," Daisy offered.

"What else didja bring, sweetheart?" Starsky asked, pointedly ignoring Hutch.

"In keeping with the California tradition of crab at the new year, I've made crab salad on focaccia bread, with corn pudding on the side, tomato and jicama slices for the vegetable, and eggnog cheese cake for dessert."

"Sounds delicious," Starsky said, watching while Huggy poured out the drinks. When everyone had a wineglass full of champagne, they clinked them together, the chime of good crystal tinkling like fairy bells. "Happy New Year."

"Happy New Year," Daisy echoed with a grin. "I can't believe the way my life has turned around in such a short time. Last January my ex was sentenced to twenty in Soledad, and I was about ready to join the girls on the corner to make a living."

"But you went back to what you do best, cooking," Hutch said, sipping the effervescent wine.

"Oh, that ain't what she does best, if you know what I mean." Huggy rolled his eyes suggestively.

"Huggy!" Daisy groaned, smacking his arm. "Crude, rude and unrefined."

"She's tryin' to instill a little fin-esse in the Bear." Huggy took a mouthful of corn pudding. "Tasty, my dear. Goes right on the menu."

"What will be the slant of the new place?" Hutch asked.

"Very eclectic--diverse, and we'll change the menu frequently to keep people coming back," Daisy enthused.

"Of course, there'll be a few regular items on the menu--decided to include an old favorite around here, with the name changed just a little," Huggy said. "A hamburger with all the trimmings--and extra hot sauce, is now the Starsky Special."

"Thanks, Hug," Starsky murmured, sounding surprised, but there was a brittle edge to his voice that worried Hutch. Starsky was brewing for an explosion, and he hadn't the slightest idea why.

"This is really good, Daisy." Hutch ate much of what was on his plate, eyeing his partner the whole time. Starsky was making a good show of eating, but mostly the food was scooped up on the red plastic fork, brought to his lips, tasted briefly and then put back on the plate. He did drink the whole glass of champagne and ask for more, but luckily Huggy had drunk the last of it, so Daisy poured sparkling cider into Starsky's glass.

"Is there really a prison ward upstairs?" Daisy asked, glancing at the light fixture in the ceiling as if expecting to see criminals coming out from the heating ducts.

"I have it on good authority that Ernie Mancuso has the room right above mine." Starsky put aside his barely touched plate of food. "But supposedly he's goin' back to a cell in the morning. Heart attack doesn't get you outta the slammer for good."

"Aren't you worried?" she shivered, piling plates back into the basket.

"The ward is locked," Hutch assured. "No one's escaped from there in years--they're usually too sick, and then sent back to prison before they're any threat to the staff or other patients."

"I just never knew until I heard about Mancuso on the news." Daisy laughed self-consciously. "That they put the murderers in with everybody else in the hospital. Seems like this ought to be a really safe place."

"It is," Hutch defended.

"Like hell it is," Starsky negated, straight faced.

"I'll keep you safe, babycakes," Huggy promised, giving Daisy a quick kiss on the lips. For s second they lingered, locked together in passion then parted hastily, their ardor only partially quelled. "I think we need to get going, huh?"

"The Pits will be packed again tonight, and you've probably got a bunch of visitors wanting to welcome in the new year," Daisy agreed, then took Starsky's hand. "Oh, you've got warm hands. Mine are always freezing this time of year. I just wanted to tell you talking to you helped me, too…and I did tell Huggy."

"Yeah?" For the first time that day Starsky really smiled, his expression soft and wistful looking at the pretty girl. "Shifted some stuff into place, that's for sure. That was nice a'you."

"Any time. And if you have any of your mother's old cookie recipes, I'd be happy to try them out."

"I'll call Aunt Rose." Starsky nodded.

Once Huggy and Daisy left most of the light left, too, a distinct chill settling over the hospital room. Hutch was surprised how wary he was of being alone with his lover. He didn't know why, just that the very air felt oppressive and heavy. "What did you and Daisy talk about?" he asked lightly.

"You bent on prying every last secret out of me?" Starsky snarled.

"No, Starsk, just asking." He held up his hands in apology, palms out. "She did help you, I was just curious. You weren't very…friendly today until the end, is all."

"Oh, yeah, I just love having people come in here all excited about the future while I'm stuck in bed heaving up my insides." Starsky attacked. "Like I asked to have that thrown in my face! The Starsky Special. Shit. You know he did that cause he thinks I'm going t'die, don't you?"

Unable to breathe, Hutch just stared at his partner in shock. He truly had no idea where this was coming from, and yet, from a back corner of his brain, there was something horribly familiar about it. "Don't say that."

"Why?" he shouted in return. "It's true, isn't it? Life is all about death. Start dying from the minute we're born. I'm just one of the lucky ones, I get to go twice."

"Starsky." Hutch touched his arm in supplication, but Starsky recoiled. Stunned, Hutch stood still trying to process what was going on, and it was then that something finally registered in his tired brain. Wanting to be sure, Hutch sat on the edge of the bed to gently lay the back of his hand on a flushed cheek. Although Starsky looked about ready to bolt, he didn't move. "Just hold still for a minute. Do you have a temperature?"

"I don't know," Starsky wiggled away from the touch, irritated. "Does every single body function have to be up for discussion?"

"I'll call Katie…"


"Starsky, you could be sick."

"Big surprise there, huh? Gemma'll be in here precisely at sixteen hundred hours, 'cause that's the kind of nurse she is, and she'll write down all those stupid little numbers all over again." Starsky closed his eyes, wiping sweat off his forehead. "What does it matter if Katie takes 'em any sooner?"

"That's two hours from now," Hutch said quietly. It was just coming up on two o'clock, and the nurses would be finishing up assignments before shift change at three p.m. He was fully aware that if Starsky was sick he'd need a full compliment of blood work up and antibiotics started, meaning a lot of work for the nurses at the end of the day shift. On the other hand, if they waited until Gemma arrived, Starsky could be even sicker, as quickly as these things seemed to come on. "It matters to me," he said softly, looking back at Starsky. The sick man still lay back on the pillow, eyes closed, arms crossed over the top of his head like he was protecting himself from some menace from above. He looked weary, and very ill. "I'm going to call Katie," Hutch decided.

"So now I don't have any control over my own body whatsoever?" Starsky growled. "Like I've been raped, every damn person in the whole universe can come in here an' do what they damn well please, cause I've ceased to exist as a thinking, breathing person. And you think I'm not dead yet?"

The pain in his chest almost unbearable, Hutch struggled to keep calm. Starsky was irrational right now, he'd be better when they gave him meds and painkillers. Except, to a certain extent Hutch agreed with him. The doctors and nurses had stripped away nearly every shred of autonomy Starsky had left. Did he have the right to insist that Starsky get treated for whatever was currently affecting him? It was perilously close to rape, without the violence. Violating Starsky's body without his consent--some of the tests were very painful. But it was for his own good, wasn't it? To save his life.

Almost unsteadily, Hutch walked out into the hall. Katie, a very young nurse who'd only recently graduated from school, looked up from writing her shift summary report.

"Ken?" she asked with concern. "Does Dave need something?"

"He's…I think he has a fever," Hutch managed.

"Oh, I'll be right there. Thanks for telling me," she answered cheerfully, tucking a strand of dark blond hair back into her bun.

A simple taking of vital signs did reveal a high temperature, which in turn led to a septic work-up where blood was drawn for several tests. The charge nurse who was helping Katie explained that these were to determine the presence of bacteria in the blood, and how the immune system was working. Starsky's wasn't working very well at all, and his bacteria count was high. By the following shift, he was started on antibiotics, and more tests were ordered, including a spinal tap. Hutch's already acidy belly lurched towards his knees at the very mention of the procedure.

"Doesn't that mean you think he has something really serious?" Hutch questioned the earnest looking Dr. Lloyd. He was one of the two other oncologists who regularly worked in the Rose Tree Unit. Many of the patients came from other hospitals to this one because of the exemplary care here, and brought their own cancer specialists with them, but John Davies, Mitchell Lloyd, and Ellen Weaver were the main doctors on the Unit. Hutch had often heard from other patients and their families that Lloyd was a little too

eager to do every test in the book even after a bacterial or viral culprit had been found.

"Well, in David's case we need to err on the side of caution. He's had a UTI before--and pneumonia only a few weeks ago." He pushed up the perpetually crooked wire-rims he wore. "In a healthy person, with a working immune system, the infection can be isolated to a small area of the body, but for someone like him, the chemo has pretty much wiped out his ability to fight disease. Thus, the bacteria can run rampant and attack areas usually off limits."

"So you know he has a urinary tract infection, again?" Hutch asked in dismay.

"Very likely, from all indications. What I'm afraid of is bacteria getting to his brain and causing meningitis. In his present condition, that would be fatal, which is why I need to do a tap."

Hutch nodded, walking with leaded feet back into Starsky's room. Starsky's mood had only darkened with repeated needle sticks and new medications. The doctors were having some difficulty finding antibiotics that didn't cause adverse side effects for him. The one that had produced hives was out, as was another that brought with it immediate vomiting, not an easily dismissed reaction for someone already constantly retching.

"You've got that look in your eye," Starsky accused.

"Lloyd wants to do a spinal tap," Hutch said wearily.

"Lloyd can fuck himself."

"He's worried about an infection in your brain!" Hutch flared.

"Have him stick a needle in his own spine, see how he likes it."

Terror coursing through his veins, Hutch slammed his palm against the nightstand, making Starsky flinch in surprise. "I get that you're fed up with this! I get that you're tired. Well, I'm tired, too, dammit, but you have to keep fighting."

"How? There's nothing left, Hutch! I don't care anymore! And you know that crap about eatin' the crab? It's a crock a'shit," Starsky raged, and as scared as Hutch was right then, he also knew Starsky needed to get out the anger or it would fester inside. "I was deludin' myself big time to think that would get rid of the cancer."

"Creative visualization is a useful tool…"

"Everything sucks, and if I died right now, I'd be glad."

"You'd leave me?" Hutch asked, totally spent, sinking down onto the side of the bed. Starsky looked like crap, there was no arguing that. The sweet, short curls that had grown in, soft as a chinchilla pelt, were damp with sweat, plastered to his skull. Fever had produced the overly bright red cheeks that glowed obscenely in his otherwise pale face, and he had the look of someone who'd been ill for a very long time. "Without so much as a good-bye? Is that all there is between us?" Hutch entreated.

Starsky looked away, but his shoulders heaved when he took a breath in.

Knowing he was manipulating the situation shamelessly, Hutch still plowed ahead, desperate for this all to be over. "Please, Starsky, do this for me?"

"God, don't you know I do everything for you?" Starsky said despairingly.

Hutch cupped that beloved face between his hands, turning Starsky to face him, feeling the abnormal temperature burning his palms. "Never forget that I love you."


"And we have to really work hard to keep a good attitude through all this--you most of all, because you're fighting the hardest. But, Starsky, everything I read says that a positive attitude works." Hutch kissed each eyelid reverently, feeling Starsky's acquiescence down to his soul. "It really can work miracles."

"Helps to believe in 'em."

Since Gemma had the needed equipment all ready, Starsky was prepped and draped for the procedure within minutes. Hutch held his hand as he was curved forward so that the doctor had a good view of the spine.

"This won't take long," Lloyd said. "I'm going to numb the area with Lidocaine, so you'll feel this needle stick, and not the one…"

"I've had one before," Starsky said flatly, his tone implying that he wasn't in the mood for explanations or platitudes. "Just do it."

Hutch, having spent all of his recent free time studying the MCAT book, not to mention every other beginning level medical text he could get his hands on, watched the procedure out of the corner of his eye, feeling Starsky's grip tighten. As much as he hated that Starsky had to have another painful test, he was also becoming so much more fascinated with everything medical. Reading about procedures in a book was one thing, physically manipulating a needle into the spaces between the vertebrae was quite another. All of it just emphasized how little he knew, but the general Ed. questions in the MCAT were proving easier than he'd expected. Every time he breezed through a problem, his confidence soared. If nothing else, he'd go into medical school with advanced knowledge of anything pertaining to osteosarcoma treatments.

He almost laughed, despite the grim situation, realizing he was already imagining himself in medical school, and he hadn't even taken the test yet. That certainly counted as creative visualization.

"There, all done, and the fluid looks clear, which is a good sign." Lloyd pressed a small Band-Aid over the tiny mark and Starsky stiffened.

"How you doing?" Hutch asked gently, smoothing his forehead as Gemma helped Starsky lay flat once more.

"Terrific, can't you tell?" Starsky replied with sarcasm.

"Stay prone for a few hours, it will help prevent a headache, but if you do experience pain, I'll write an order for a painkiller," Lloyd said, directing the nurse to clean up the mess he'd made before leaving.

"I'll bet he's a joy to work with," Hutch observed, helping Gemma wheel the small Mayo stand out of the room.

She pursed her lips, trying unsuccessfully to hide a smile, but her dimples gave her away. Gemma might be old enough to be his mother, but Hutch had discovered she had a wicked sense of humor. "Some of the girls call him Lloyd the Droid."

"Behind his back, of course," Hutch chuckled.

"See if David will drink something," Gemma said. "And I'll be back to check up on him after I see to the Colonel's dressing change."

"The Colonel?" Hutch asked.

"He fought in the Pacific theater in World War II and in Korea," Gemma said. "Very interesting stories."

"Sounds like someone Starsky'd get along well with--he loves all those fighter pilot movies." Hutch looked back at his partner lying in the bed. Starsky appeared to be asleep, but was probably just lying with his eyes closed. "Starsk, you want a soda?"


"I could go down to the machine in the cafeteria, get some root beer or Orange Crush," Hutch wheedled.

Starsky opened one eye, squinting up at him. "With ice cream?"

"You gonna eat it if I do?"


"You're on." Hutch grinned, hoping that this was a signal that Starsky's attitude was changing. It was a whole new year, filled with hope and promise, but for Hutch only one thing would make it a happy one. If David Starsky went into remission.


January was a month of rain and vomiting. Whole days, even whole weeks, went by with Starsky only marginally aware of life outside his room. He was down to basic survival.

Hutch despaired of ever getting the old Starsky back. Glimpses of his cocky grin, quick wit and playful personality were few and far between. Cancer was whittling Starsky away bit by bit--hair, weight, a leg. Hutch had begun to hate the beast in a way he had never done before. After the initial diagnosis, he had just feared that the disease would take his partner away from him--to death. But now he found that Starsky had already been taken away, even though he was still alive. Hutch's hatred of the disease now matched Starsky's own, which spawned his desperate search for alternative treatments. Cancer was the enemy, and he was going after it with both barrels. He haunted Chinese herbal shops, pored over books from health food shops, and questioned every person at the precinct for new remedies. Most of what he found were easily dismissed as hoaxes or sugar placebos, leaving Hutch lost and fearful. Here he was interested in medical school, and was rejecting current medical doctrine for any cure he could latch on to.

One of the few things that offered any help at all was fennel tea. Starsky, when he was up to talking at all, claimed it tasted like shit, but it did help relieve the nausea if he took it first thing in the morning, especially before his IV infusion had started. But over time, Starsky began to retreat completely from the world.

Hutch was back at the Academy with a whole new class of cadets. He really enjoyed spending time with young men and women who were excited and passionate about their blossoming careers in law enforcement but he was experiencing a feeling of detachment most of the time. He had to force himself to join in discussions with any amount of enthusiasm, and annoying projects such as grading papers and tests were almost beyond him.

Mid-January he caught a mild cold which banned him from the Rose Tree Unit for five days. Hutch felt a fleeting sense of relief at the reprieve, but that was short lived. He then spent the remaining four days worried sick that something fearful would happen to Starsky while he couldn't be there, only intensifying the already crippling stress and depression that saddled him. Luckily, Starsky was in between treatments at the time and was, in the nursing parlance, stable.

The third round of chemo was completed on schedule but after that Starsky couldn't even muster the strength to sit up in bed. He had absolutely no energy whatsoever and even shifting positions with the help of a nurse was more than he could manage. He slept most of the time.

Hutch spent the morning of Sunday, January 27th, at home working on lesson plans and sundry teacher duties. Since he had taken over for the late Ben Logan after the fall semester had already started, the early lectures were all new territory for him. Plus, his concentration was nil these days. While he could have done the work in Starsky's room, to be near his friend, he was finding that such an ordeal lately that he'd begun to wonder about his own loyalty. How could he be so cruel, staying away when his lover, his very soul mate, needed him the most? The problem was Starsky was hardly there, rarely communicating and barely civil when he did.

After stopping for a bean sprout sandwich on whole grain bread with a side of broccoli salad for himself, and a banana smoothie with extra protein powder for Starsky, Hutch headed over to the hospital. He tried to maintain an ulta-healthy diet, as he'd done so strenuously in his younger days, and had lost several pounds. In fact, Huggy and Daisy were beginning to worry about him, which he totally blew off. Starsky was the one who was hanging onto a thread, he deserved all the worry. For himself, he needed to shed the extra weight to keep up with his cadets.

Just stepping into the lobby elevator suddenly ratcheted up Hutch's adrenaline levels. Something was wrong, he could feel it down to his bones. He carefully wrapped the second half of the sandwich in cling wrap and stowed it in his pocket, wondering whether to just pitch the smoothie in the trash before even he got to the unit. Starsky probably wouldn't have taken more than a sip or two anyway because the Adriamycin had given him a stomach ulcer. Hutch watched the ascending numbers on the elevator monitor with the growing fear that this was going to be one of those bad days.

"Hutch!" Calliope, the punk rocker ward clerk, who now sported green spiked hair and a safety pin through one ear, exclaimed. "How'd you get here so quickly? I just left a message on your machine."

"I was on my way, what's wrong?" he asked, just managing to keep his anxiety suppressed.

"Dr. Davies just wanted you to know that he's ordered some tests for another septic work-up. Dave wasn't feeling so good this morning."

"Damn," Hutch started to race to the room, then paused, handing Calliope the smoothie. "You want this? Banana with extra C and protein."

"My favorite, thanks!" she grinned, sipping from the straw. "It's good."

John Davies was just leaving Starsky's room when Hutch rounded the front desk for the hallway. "Glad to see you, Ken," he greeted.

"How is he?"

"His temperature went up a few hours ago, we drew some blood, and I've started antibiotics. It's another waiting game," Davies said quietly. "It's probably pneumonia from the way his lungs sound, but…"

"What the hell is going on here, John?" Hutch barked louder than he should have. "Why does this keep happening? In a hospital? Isn't this where people go to get well, not sicker?"

"Ken," Davies pronounced his name sharply, indicating the open door of the family room. "Let's take this where we have some privacy and won't wake the other patients."

"I've heard all your platitudes before, John," Hutch ripped out savagely once they were in the pleasant room. "But I'm tired of them. What are you going to do about this, now?"

"Prepare yourself to accept that Starsky may be dying," the doctor said carefully, his handsome face compassionate and sad.

"NO!" Hutch shouted, anger surging up like an Atlantic storm. "No, that I don't accept! I am not ready, and neither is he. What antibiotic is he on, huh? Not the one that made him vomit, right? Will this get rid of the pneumonia? Because there is no way this is killing him, no fucking way."

"It's still too early to identify if the drug is specific to whatever bacteria is in his bloodstream." Davies took a deep breath. "You have to know that this is not easy for me. I really like Starsky, and I don't want…sometimes things are out of our hands, no matter how hard we try to change them."

"So what was the…what…eight, no, ten years of medical school good for, then, huh?" Hutch raged, terrified of what the doctor was telling him. He paced around the perimeter of the room, bypassing the coffee machine and TV twice before Davies spoke again.

"We are taught to try to save lives," he answered tiredly. "But there comes a time when we also learn that…nature takes its course."

"Crock of shit, and a cop-out for you, huh?" Hutch said savagely. "Cause this way it's out of your hands. So the patient died, couldn't save him. That's the way things were meant to be." He jerked the door open, not even glancing back at the other man. "Starsky's proved you doctors wrong on more than one occasion, and he's going to do it again. To think I considered going to medical school!" He stomped out, crossing the hall to Starsky's room in only a few steps. But he faltered at the doorjamb, almost afraid to go in.

Was this his penance for not being supportive enough? Would Starsky have stayed healthy--well, less sick than he was now--if Hutch had come through more? Could he have changed anything, or was Starsky's body truly just giving up on him?

Walking into the familiar room just far enough to watch the sleeping man, Hutch was overwhelmed with misplaced guilt. He knew he wasn't at fault here, but he felt so bad, so culpable, nonetheless. He leaned against the wall, weeping for all the good times they'd lost to this scourge. Tears slipped silently down his face and he gave into the pain, hugging himself tightly to keep from making a disturbance. At long last he scrubbed his cheeks dry, approaching the bed to be that much closer to the only man he'd ever loved.

Starsky' skin was as dry and brittle as autumn leaves, his body limp and unmoving. Hutch was almost afraid to touch him anymore, afraid of feeling that horrible heat again. His temperature kept rising as if his body were defying natural law. A glance at the nurse's notes showed that he was currently at 40 Celsius which, if Hutch remembered correctly, was something over 103 Fahrenheit. The numbers scared him. How long could Starsky's already frail body withstand such a strain?

"Hey." The word was merely an exhalation of air, but Hutch could have heard his partner's voice in a howling hurricane.

"I thought you were asleep," Hutch said fondly, finally stroking Starsky's overly hot cheek with the back of his hand.

"I was, heard you…" Starsky squinted, barely moving his head. He was wheezy, but not coughing, which Hutch hoped was a good sign. "Wha' time z'it?"

"Noon--twelve thirty. I heard you had a rough morning."

"Jus' hot." Starsky pushed away the sheet covering him. His thin t-shirt and drawstring pajama pants were clinging damply to him. "'M too hot."

"You've got a temperature again, but John started antibiotics."

"Damn," Starsky muttered. "Again? Nurses were sticking me." He held out a bony arm to show.

"You're all bruised," Hutch agreed sympathetically, but strangely cheered just the same. This Starsky was far too normal. He couldn't possibly be near death, and be this chatty. "You want me to get a wet rag, cool you off?"


Hutch rinsed a washrag in cold water, wrung it out and wiped it over Starsky's face. He did the same on his chest and arms, helped Starsky change into clean clothes, and lastly folded the rag into a rectangle to place on his forehead.

"Feels good," Starsky sighed, curling his lax fingers into Hutch's. "Love you, Hutch."

"I love you, Starsk, more than all the stars in the sky," Hutch responded, barely able to keep the tears out of his voice.

"S'good, then," Starsky agreed and was asleep.


"Why is it we always dwell on the worst case scenario?" Hutch mused aloud. It was February first, nearly a week since Starsky's recent pneumonia scare, and once again the patient had rallied. To John Davies amazement, and Hutch's relief, Starsky was on the mend again.

Hutch was taking a rare break from the bedside to fill Huggy in on the latest. He slumped against the bar sipping his beer, so weary he couldn't think straight. He'd taught a class at the Academy in the morning, visited Starsky at lunch time, overseen a crime scene at a jewelry store in the afternoon, and been back at the hospital for dinner. He'd had over-baked cod, and Starsky had actually eaten two mouthfuls of rice pudding. Despite Starsky's disparaging comments about the creamy dessert he'd developed a fondness for Mika's mother's secret recipe. It was the only thing he was currently keeping down.

"I sit and think about him…getting sicker," Hutch continued, turning the beer stein around in his hands. "Imagine him failing…instead of just the opposite. He could just as easily get better, right? He did get better--but I'm not as happy as I should be. Why is that?"

"It's the same as when you're a little kid hiding under the covers scared of the bogey man comin' down the hall," Huggy said. "The same ol' room where your brother's sleeping in the other bed becomes a haunted house in the middle of the night with creaks and groans like ghosts floatin' around." He clutched at his heart like that scared child. "No matter what the reality, the brain automatically conjures up what scares you the most. Death's at the top of the heap, my man."

"John Davies started talking about death--that Starsky wouldn't make it." Hutch stared down into his beer, tiny waves lapping the sides of the glass because his hands curled around the outside were shaking.

"Have you talked to Starsky?"

"I can't do that! He knows how I feel! He has to live."

"Yeah, man, I hear you, but do you know how he feels?" Huggy asked shrewdly.

"He doesn't want to die." Hutch said automatically, shaking his head, but he couldn't shut out the echoes of the conversation he'd had with Starsky on New Year's. That he was one of the lucky ones who got to die twice. Starsky could not be consciously thinking that death was a good thing. That was impossible.


"Mika?" Starsky plastered on his most convincing and winsome grin. "Can I sit up for a while?"

"Dave, it's nearly 11 p.m., you should be going to sleep," she threatened with mock severity.

"I slept all day long, physical ther'pist says I gotta get up more," he wheedled.

"This shift is almost over, you should be in bed," Mika sighed, recording the last of his vitals on her sheet. Starsky was proud that they were as average as anyone walking around Bay City who didn't have a terminal disease. "Ken is asleep."

"He's had a long day." Starsky glanced over at his slumbering partner. Luckily, as quickly as Hutch had gone down he'd be out for a while, giving Starsky a long time to put his plan into action. Starsky had made a decision that had been long coming, to retake control of his own life. It felt really satisfying, like he'd finally taken a positive step, even though Hutch might not think so. In fact, just thinking about Hutch's opinion on the subject unnerved him just a tiny bit, so Starsky was trying not to look in his direction. "C'mon, schweetheart, just for a while. I'll watch the Friday night news. When Ginger comes on night shift she can help me back to bed."

"I'll tell her to add a sleeping pill to your late night cocktail." Mika rolled her eyes, but expertly transferred him into the wheelchair next to the bed. She made sure the TV remote and a glass of water were on the nightstand and waved good-bye.

Once she was gone, Starsky reached casually over and disconnected the tubing from the IV port sewn into his chest. He was getting to be an old pro at that, having helped with the easy procedure countless times. Depressing the red button on the IV pump, he switched off the power. First part of the plan carried out flawlessly. It had been weeks since he'd had the energy to do anything even as strenuous as sitting up like this, but adrenaline barreled through his veins, giving him the strength to do what had to be done before he crashed and burned.

Starsky actually did flick on the TV, not paying the slightest bit of attention to the somber anchorwoman describing a deadly car crash on the 405. He was focused solely on the contents of the nightstand, and nothing else. Starsky had watched carefully when Hutch stripped down for bed, seeing him place his long barreled Python pistol in the drawer. With a calm resolve born of desperation, Starsky removed the gun and hid it under his thigh. The cold steel seemed to seep right through his pajama bottoms into his soul. Knowing Hutch would never leave the gun loaded, Starsky propelled the wheelchair a few feet forward to a pile of clothes casually tossed over a chair, and went through the pockets. He found what he needed, his heart banging like a drum.

Hutch grumbled in his sleep and rolled over. Starsky froze, staring at him, but Hutch had long grown accustomed to sleeping through the sounds of a hospital at night. Nurses talking, the TV on, movement, were all nothing new, and he rarely awakened anymore.

"I love you, Hutch," Starsky whispered under cover of the TV weatherman predicting more rain. All the exertion had loosened the phlegm in his chest and he stifled a cough with his fist, furiously wheeling the wheelchair one handed to get as far away from Hutch as possible.

Once out in the hall, he looked furtively about, but apparently had timed things perfectly. Just after 11 p.m. nearly all the evening shift nurses, and all the fresh night nurses, went to the nurse's station for report. The only remaining nurses were either finishing up last minute patient care or counting narcotics in the med room. The long corridor was empty. Starsky took a deep breath that threatened to bring on more coughing, and headed for the solarium where he and Hutch had spent such a wonderful evening only one month ago; before the resurgence of chemo, puking, and hair loss, much less two bouts of bacterial infections, countless lab draws, and the end of any real joy in Starsky's life. He'd had it. This had to end now.


"Where is he?"

Hearing the words in his sleep, Hutch tried to turn away from the noise. He was getting better about sleeping through the frequent disturbances from the medical staff who came into the room at all hours of the night, but he rarely got a completely uninterrupted night's sleep.

"Ken? Where's David?" The nurse's voice was sharp and well on the way to concerned.

That banished any last vestiges of sleep. Hutch sat up fast, scanning the dim room. A plump nurse stood in the middle of the room in front of an obviously empty bed.

"Where's Starsky?"

"That's what I'd like to know," Ginger replied. "I already checked the bathroom, he's not there. Mika said she got him up into a wheelchair to watch the news just before 11."

"What time is it now?" Hutch asked, scrambling out of bed. He always wore sweats to bed in deference to the nurses, so once he slid his feet into slippers he was dressed.

"Almost 11:30."

"Damn," Hutch swore, swallowing any outright terror. There had to be a logical explanation. Starsky was in no shape to have gotten very far, and while there was a slight possibility that some criminal bent on revenge might have sneaked in and taken him off, Hutch discarded that theory immediately. Starsky must be close by, probably on this floor.

"I need to tell the charge nurse."

"Keep things quiet for now," Hutch advised. "I'll search down to the end of the hall, you go up that way. Isn't there a nurse call button in every room?"

"Yes, even places like the family kitchen and solarium."

"Good, if I ring in the next few minutes, see if you can be the one who responds." Hutch concentrated on maintaining a calm, controlled exterior, his police training an advantage. But inside he was quaking. What the hell had Starsky done?

He paused momentarily as Ginger hurried off in the other direction. Where would Starsky go? The Rose Tree Unit was shaped like a donut; the main elevators opening onto a small waiting area directly in the center, with the ward clerk's desk to one side, and the nurses's station on the other. Medical staff conference rooms and med rooms were situated behind, with therapy and exam rooms on the opposite end behind the elevators. The patient rooms marched down each corridor connecting at one end with the solarium, and on the other with a wide view of the ocean. There was a flight of stairs to upper and lower floors at each end to comply with fire laws. The eastern end of the middle bank of rooms housed space for supplies, treatment, cooking and visiting. Many of those had two doors giving easy access to both sides of the wing and there was one connecting hallway that stretched between. But after considering and rejecting most of the available options, Hutch headed straight for the place that called to his heart rather than his head; the location of their last and most memorable date.

Starsky sat with his back to the door, apparently watching the night sky through the floor to ceiling windows, and Hutch felt himself sag with relief. Nothing bad had happened, the errant one was all unharmed, and only a relatively short distance from his bed.

"God, Starsk!" He grabbed the handles of the wheelchair and pulled it around, his adrenaline edged fear not thinking about the consequences. "You scared me to…"

"Death?" Starsky asked remotely.

Hutch recoiled, scrambling back from his partner in surprise. Starsky was holding his Python, the long barreled pistol looking large and awkward in the emaciated man's grasp. The gun barrel was resting in his lap, the weight obviously too heavy for him to heft for long periods, but one finger was pressed tightly over the trigger, the business end pointed straight up so that a bullet would rip though his jaw and face.

"What are you doing?" Hutch asked breathlessly. "Please Starsk…put the gun down."

"Why?" Starsky's voice was composed, his face devoid of any emotion Hutch could read.

"Because you could hurt yourself." Hutch mentally scrambled on how to handle the situation. He'd negotiated with a number of potential suicides in his years as a cop but had no idea how to defuse things when the victim was his own partner. "We need to talk, but I can't with you holding…"

"Why not, Hutch? I've already hurt myself. I just want to stop hurting."

"So you stole my gun?" He needed to find the call button and summon support but he was afraid to take his eyes off Starsky. He felt cut off from the rest of the hospital, hoping that someone--anyone--would eventually come looking for them before it was too late.

"I knew this is the only way I could get you to come," Starsky said, and Hutch could see the utter weariness evident in every line of his body. Starsky looked spent, the sharp lines of his gaunt face etched with fatigue and pain. "So I waited."

"To do it in front of me?" Hutch cried, appalled. "Starsky, this is suicide!"

"I wasn't going to…" The dark blue eyes filled with tears, but he blinked them away, his back stiffening with determination. "Hutch, I don't want to live like this anymore--not with all this shit in my body."

"So you're just giving up? Choosing death?"

"No, I'm choosing to live a life I know will end, just like everybody else's."

"You won't live very long if you pull that trigger," Hutch said harshly, barely able to breathe.

Starsky's finger eased off the trigger, but he kept possession of the weapon. "I have an ultimatum."

"I'm listening."

"I want to stop the chemo--today. No more chemo, ever."

"Then you'll die," Hutch said flatly, his belly cramped so tightly he was having trouble taking in sufficient amounts of air. He felt like he was drowning, water closing up over his head.

"I know, but Hutch, that was always going to happen, don't you see?" The heretofore controlled tears slipped down his cheeks, but Starsky didn't succumb easily. "I was dyin' every time they pumped me fulla Cisplatin and Adriamycin, and then everything else to keep me alive long enough for the next course. It was hell, there wasn't any kinda life left there."

"What's left?" Hutch begged in despair.

"I don't want to die tonight. I don't," Starsky promised. He let go of the gun so abruptly it would have slipped right off his lap if Hutch hadn't lunged and grabbed up the weapon. Hutch dumped the bullets out and pushed the disarmed gun far across the linoleum where it landed under the table.

"I want to live out what time there is with you. Not so sick I can't even bear t'be in my own skin."

"Oh, God, Starsk." Hutch knelt down to his level, wrapped his arms around Starsky's thighs and clung to him.

"Hutch, I know you're scared but I can't do this anymore."

"I just wanted you to get better, to go into remission. I wanted you safe. The chemo was supposed to be the cure."

"Maybe it's a cure for some people, but I don't think it's the cure for me." Starsky bracketed Hutch's face with his hands. "You can't make this better."

"Then what can I do?"

"Just be you, and accept what I ask," Starsky whispered. "That's what I need."

"I'll do anything--but maybe there's some new treatment out there? In Europe? I've been reading…"

"You remember tellin' me about that death and dyin' crap? The five stages?"


"Saw a program on PBS 'bout her." Starsky rubbed his thumbs in concentric circles through Hutch's hair, just above his ears. "Acceptance is one of 'em. Hutch, I never wanted any of this." He hiccuped which turned into a cough, but the spasm didn't last long. "I've been angry, fighting, depressed…and everywhere in between, but I ain't tried acceptance yet. I think it's time."

Neither spoke. Hutch sat numbly, wondering if the only reason his head didn't split in half was because Starsky was holding the two sides together.

Out in the hall they could hear a commotion, Ginger's increasingly frantic voice describing her search to someone else, concluding with, "Ken said he'd hit the call button, but he didn't. This is the last place to look…oh." She trailed off, seeing the two men in the solarium. Two other nurses ran smack into her back, exclaiming in surprise.

"He found me," Starsky said simply, taking charge.

Hutch didn't move until Starsky stopped stroking his temples. Then he slowly got to his feet, holding onto the wheelchair for support, Starsky's closeness the only thing he could handle right then.

"Is Dr. Davies in house?" Starsky asked with authority.

"He is," the charge nurse said.

"Call him. Hutch'll get me back to my room."


"Starsky, you could work on your timing." John Davies strode in, his lab coat flapping. Despite the hour he was nicely dressed in a button down shirt and pleated slacks, not comfy scrubs like some of the other doctors wore at night. "It's after midnight. I was planning to schedule a conference with you both in the morning."

"About?" Starsky asked, now back in bed.

"The chemo hasn't been as effective as I'd hoped," Davies began.

"You mean it isn't working," Starsky stated bluntly, glancing over at the still stricken Hutch. He really did regret the drastic measures he'd used to get his lover's attention but he felt so inordinately lightened, as if the poison from all the drugs was already flushed from his bloodstream.

"More or less, yes."

"What are our other options?" Hutch asked hopelessly, slumped on his rumpled cot.

"There aren't any right now," Davies said gravely.

"So no more chemo," Starsky determined.

"I'd still like to finish the course. It could slow the growth of any future tumors…"

"No, that's what I wanted to tell you." Starsky tilted his head to look the tall man directly in the eye. "No more, ever. I'm dropping out of this now."

"Medically, I don't advise that," Davies argued.

"He pretty much already decided," Hutch spoke up. "Stubborn."

"You do have that right," the doctor conceded. "But Starsky, can I ask you why? What changed your mind?"

Turning towards Hutch, still a little guilty at his ruthless tromping on his partner's emotions, Starsky explained. "I never wanted to start the second time, but I did it for Hutch."

On the smaller bed Hutch inhaled noisily, but didn't say a word.

"But it was only takin' me away from him. I wasn't living anymore, I was just existing. Now, before I die, I want to live for real. No puking, no vital signs every minute and a half. I want to go home, John."

Sitting down in the unused wheelchair, John steepled his fingers pensively, "You'd have to sign some against medical advice papers, for legal reasons."

"Yeah, okay."

"Did you ever make out a living will?"

"Not formally." Starsky looked over at Hutch again, his energy level dropping fast. He was so tired, and starting to regret how much he hurt the man he loved. Would he be able mend the wounds, or would Hutch resent his decision too much to forgive him? "We talked about it. No ventilator when it gets really bad. I don't want to linger."

"I'd strongly advise you to make one up--and maybe even sign a DNR."

"What's that?" Starsky lay back on the pillow because even talking was sapping his strength.

"Do not resuscitate," Davies explained quietly. "It's basically the same thing as a living will, but some doctors prefer that one over the other."

"God," Hutch whispered.

"So after that, when can I go home?"

"You're still on IV antibiotics, and your platelets are in the toilet, Starsky. I won't beat around the bush, as sick as you are right now, I am not comfortable with you going home."

"When?" Starsky pressed, ready to walk out that door tonight.

"When your blood levels rise, when you've gained some weight." Davies frowned, obviously unhappy with his patient's turn of events. "When I say you can."

"That's not fair…!"

"Starsky," Hutch said sharply, turning blazing eyes on him. Starsky gulped, recognizing Hutch's ire. "He's the doctor here. You won your victory, so listen to what he has to say. No way would I take you home in this condition, you're weak, and I'M. NOT. READY."


"Starsky, get some rest, we can talk more in the morning, hammer out the details," Davies said carefully, taking his leave.

"Are you satisfied?" Hutch snarled.

"I…?" Starsky started, confused. He just wanted Hutch to understand his reasons, his need to live a life that wasn't bound by drugs, needles, and doctor's rules.

"Starsky, I'm so scared right now. How do I cope with this? What happens now?"

"I don't know," he admitted, spent. "I think we gotta make it up as we go along, This is all new territory for me." Starsky shivered, the last few hours taking their toll. "Come here, please?"

Hutch approached the bed warily, his face a picture of sorrow and disorientation. He stood two feet away, not completely committing himself to anything.

"Get in?" Starsky offered, still shivering, really cold now. He truly didn't know how he would cope if Hutch didn't surrender. He held up the sheet in invitation. Very slowly Hutch bent down, then crawled into the narrow space. Starsky moved back a little until his spine was pressed up against the safety railing, but he didn't care in the slightest. Hutch curled, as much as a man his size could in that amount of space, putting his cheek on Starsky's shoulder. "Are we still friends?" Starsky asked forlornly.

"Aw, Starsk," Hutch said, crying openly. "How can you even ask? You just threw me for a loop. I didn't have any idea…"

"No?" Starsky gently kissed one tear stained eyelid and then the other. "None at all?"

"Maybe a little, but I just wanted to believe in a miracle."

"This is the miracle, Hutch," Starsky assured him. "Us, we're together, and that's always been the only one for me."


"Hang on!" Katie advised, pressing the button for the sling that hoisted Starsky up off his bed and calculated his weight. He hated the thing; it always made his already dicey stomach even queasier, although today wasn't as bad as previous days because he was off chemo for good.

"What's the verdict?" Starsky asked when he was safely back on lumpy mattress and not swinging in the air like a flying Wallenda.

"Well," Katie grimaced, writing down the number in her notes. "You've got a ways to go before you get to Dr. Davies' magic number of 120 pounds."

"I don't see what's so magic about it--he's just setting down draconian rules to keep me here," he grumped. "Will you tell me, for crying out loud?"

"108," Katie announced

"One hundred," Starsky repeated aghast. "And eight? Where'd it all go?" He really should have been paying more attention on weigh-in days, but most of the time he was just trying to ignore the nurses' interruptions.

"Remember you lost about 15 pounds after your surgery."

"Oh." He hadn't looked at it that way. Besides, there were some days that he felt the phantom leg so strongly that he was sure he could reach down and feel flesh below the thigh. His calf was so there, so evident he often forgot for long stretches of time that it was gone. Especially on days like this when it ached, sometimes cramping up until he tried to curl his invisible toes up to relieve the pain.

"Got a long ways to go," Starsky echoed Katie's original statement, wondering how much food would make up the difference between 108 pounds and 120.

"Does that inspire you to eat some of this yummy breakfast Enrique just delivered?" She poised her hands over the tray a la Carol Merrill presenting a prize on 'Let's Make a Deal'. "Banana, corn flakes, milk, toast, and juice. Very nutritious."

"No donut?"

"Make you a deal." Katie winked conspiratorially and Starsky was cheered to no end by her blatant attempt. "Doctors gave us a couple of dozen this morning because we're sweet." She wrinkled her nose, sticking out her tongue. "So, eat this up, and you can have dessert."

"I always go by that saying 'Life is uncertain, eat dessert first'."

"I prefer 'Life's a bitch and then you die'." She grinned, tidying away the blood pressure cuff and wrapping the stethoscope around her neck. Enrique had wheeled the weight sling out on a little dolly.

"I gotta shirt with that one!" Starsky laughed. Nurses always had the blackest humor. Hutch had gone off to work this morning, still shaky from last Friday's events, his eyes dreading that Starsky might expire at any moment. Starsky just knew the morbid saying on the shirt was exactly the right outfit for the day to shake his partner out of the fear.

"Then eat your breakfast and you can wear it while you have a donut," Katie trounced him, her youthful looks belaying a tougher exterior.

"Yes, ma'am," he sighed, pouring milk over the corn flakes. His tummy was still leery of most foods, but the perennial cereal was bland enough. The actual evidence of how much weight he'd lost was sobering--nearly fifty pounds since prediagnosis. At least he had a goal for the month.

He felt like he was going to Weight Watchers, only in reverse. Weight Gainers Anonymous. How much corn flakes did a person have to eat to gain even half that weight back? And why did it matter when he was eventually going to die anyway? As much as he was inordinately relieved that there would be no more of the horrible Cisplatin and its terrible twin, Adriamycin, the future was a cloudy, scary thing. How long would he live? What would death be like? Even though he'd gone halfway down that road once before, Starsky had been unconscious at the time, so he had little, if any, memories of dying. This time would be different, and while he was trying to accept it, he wasn't sure he was all the way there yet. What was that saying he'd seen on a bumper sticker just before his last hospital admission? 'Life is a work in progress'.

Katie appeared only a short time later, helped him wash and change, and presented him with a chocolate donut sprinkled liberally with pink and red jimmies. An early Valentine assortment, no doubt, Starsky mused, taking tiny bites. He'd wanted the donut, but after a small bowl of cereal and most of the glass of orange juice he was no longer hungry. This gaining weight thing was going to be harder than he'd expected, especially because eight days after chemo he was just as likely to lose what was in his stomach as keep it.

Pulling the covers up to his chin, Starsky stared sightlessly out at the gray morning sky through a slit in the window curtains. Had he done the right thing? As elated as he was to be rid of the nastiness of chemo, he was still stuck in the hospital for the foreseeable future--and then there was Hutch. The look in Hutch's eyes when he'd left for work had haunted Starsky. What had he done to his best friend? Hutch had basically clung to him both Saturday and Sunday, leaving his side only once when Daisy came in with the new shirt. And after she'd heard his decision to stop the chemo, she'd wanted to take the belated gift back. Hutch returned after Daisy left, his blue eyes rimmed with red. Starsky couldn't shake the feeling that he needed to do something to spare his lover further pain, but he didn't know what.

"David? May I come in?'

Rousing himself from a half daydream, half nap, Starsky rubbed his eyes, nodding. "I haven't seen you in a while, Saiisa."

"I was on a vacation--to see my relatives in Nigeria."

"They got lions there?"

Saiisa Borunda laughed, taking a seat by the bed. "Yes, although not downtown in Abuja where I was. I did take a drive out to see some gazelles."

"That must be an amazing sight."

"They are such swift beings, running across the grass. It is a beautiful thing to see them so wild and free," she agreed, folding her hands in her brightly colored lap, exuding elegant serenity, as always.

Starsky always enjoyed seeing what Saiisa wore; her clothing an ever-changing array of color and pattern. Today she was dressed in an ethnic styled dress of gold and green patterned with maps of Nigeria in brown and ochre. The turban that twisted around her proud head was of the same fabric. "Did you get that outfit there?"

"My grandmother made it for me," Saiisa said proudly. "You have on a rather spectacular outfit yourself." She raised her eyebrows at the T-shirt's sentiments. "So, what has been going on while I was gone? I heard you caused some commotion, made some hard decisions?"

"Yeah," Starsky sighed, all the guilt washing back over him full force. He explained what had happened in a quick monologue, concluding with, "I--couldn't do it any longer, you know? The chemo and all the drugs weren't helping. But Hutch…"

"Hutch doesn't accept your decision?"

"This hurt him bad." He shook his head. "I hurt him."

"You didn't. What has happened has, and Hutch has to sort through his own emotions as carefully as you did." Saiisa took his hand, pale and almost transparent next to her chocolately coffee color. "You didn't just wake up on Friday and decide to stop the chemo, did you?"

"No, I'd been thinking about it for a long time," Starsky admitted.

"You understood the risks, but you decided anyway--which is your right," she said positively. "Hutch may be a little hurt that you didn't confide in him ahead of time…"

"I kind of hit him over the head, huh?" Starsky asked ruefully, remembering the weight and solidity of the Python in his hand. Strangely, just holding something of Hutch's had made him feel so safe and protected while he was waiting for his partner to come find him. He'd never meant to pull the trigger, but the desire to end it had been real. And when he'd slipped his finger into that little curve of metal that fired the weapon he'd almost been seduced by how easy it would be just to do the deed. But then he'd thought about Hutch, his beautiful blond, and what it would do to leave him so unprepared for the death. So, Starsky had bided his time until his shining one had arrived. Now, days later, he wondered if there was something he could have done differently. No, he knew there were things he could have done better, but he'd been so out of control, so scared of continuing down a road he believed to be fruitless, that he'd let momentum carry him forward. Hutch hadn't found a dead body. Instead, he'd been stunned by the revelations, and was still recovering from the shock.

"Give Hutch the time to come to terms with this," Saiisa advised. "Everyone has to grieve in their own manner, but the love you share will guide the way. He'll cope, in time. Until then you can give him unconditional support in the way you have always done."

"That's not hard to do." Starsky grimaced, not sure which was more annoying, the phantom cramp in his leg that was so real he could feel the balled up muscle, or the queasiness in his stomach since the donut.

"Would you like anything? A cup of peppermint tea, perhaps?"

"You got a ghost masseuse who can rub a leg that ain't there?"

"Ah, Nettle tea helps body aches. I'll brew up a pot." Saiisa stood decisively, her brown and gold skirts rustling in her wake. "Won't be a moment."

"Wasn't going anywhere," Starsky shrugged, his mind mostly on Hutch and how Hutch was doing right then, alone for the first time in days.


Hutch had such a hard time focusing on his cadets he finally tossed out the touchy subject of suspect profiling to the class at large, and sat back numbly listening to them bat the discussion around. He put in two words during the whole thing, but none of them seemed to take notice. One particularly vocal African American man had such strong views he got most of the class on his side by the time they had to file out for target practice. Hutch sighed in relief, unsure how he was going to get through the rest of the day on three hours of sleep and the certain knowledge that Starsky was going to die, and possibly soon. He'd been unable to close his eyes each night, even though he could hear Starsky breathing in the next bed. Every time he allowed himself to relax and fall asleep, he'd awaken in terror, sure that Starsky had died in the intervening hour.

Back in the security of his tiny Academy office, he grimaced at the pile of papers waiting to be graded, and found himself staring, instead, at the MCAT book. Until recently, the book had been a never-ending source of comfort--a representative of medical science, and the power it held. Now he wasn't even sure why he was carrying the tome around anymore except that he'd become accustomed to studying during his lunch break.

Well, no longer. He was disillusioned by the panacea of medicine. He'd so wanted to believe that Starsky could be cured that he'd blinded himself to how serious osteosarcoma could be. Others had survived the disease, why not his lover? Deep down in his heart he despaired that the chemo hadn't worked, but he still wanted Starsky to continue--to give him a chance, right? Or was it just to give Hutch more time? Time he no longer had. Because Starsky was rejecting what medicine had to offer for a more holistic, surprisingly life-affirming attitude. Once upon a time, Hutch would have applauded Starsky's alternative views, when they hadn't meant his ultimate death.

He lowered his aching head onto his folded arms, ironically right on top of the MCAT book. So it was still to be his support in stressful times. And as much as Hutch wanted to turn away from medicine which had so thoroughly failed them both, he couldn't. Somewhere in the midst of this he'd heard a faint but audible calling. Ken Hutchinson could make a difference in medicine--perhaps even pave new avenues in the field of cancer medicines and alternative treatments. Starsky had shown him the way and would be his support, more than any old thick paperback book. Medical school would be hard, but he'd start out with Starsky's blessing--the terrible thought that he might graduate without Starsky cheering him from the audience clenched Hutch's belly. What would the future hold, and could he survive it?

He'd fallen asleep on his pillowed arms, because when the phone right next to his ear blared raucously he jerked up in surprise, momentarily unable to use his still numb hands. Waggling his fingers to rid them of pins and needles, Hutch fumbled with the receiver, tucking it between his chin and shoulder. "Ken Hutchinson speaking."

"You fall asleep on your desk again?" Starsky asked lightly, but Hutch could hear a nervousness in his voice.

"Hard to get any work done this morning," Hutch agreed.

"You okay?"

"I'm feeling really hopeless here, Starsk. I can't see any good coming from this." Hutch despaired. "You're going to die."

"Well, unless the Big One hits today," Starsky's emphasis capitalized the words. "I'm sticking around for a while. Hutch, I had to let go in order to live. I needed to feel good now, while I can, instead of puking up my guts every morning…that was hell, and it wasn't going to stop the inevitable." He took a deep, steadying breath, rushing the next bit as if tacking it on for Hutch's sake. "I ate breakfast today--cereal, donut, all of it…gonna gain weight, Hutch, grow my hair back, you'll see. It'll be all right."

"You ate breakfast?" Hutch repeated, wanting desperately to hang onto something good. It had been a while since Starsky had eaten much of anything, period, although his appetite had begun to improve over the weekend.

"Knew you'd approve of that," Starsky answered smugly. "Wearing my new shirt, too. Must be my day for old sayings, I tried that one 'Eat dessert first' on Katie, but she didn't bite."

"She's smart."

"Maybe I can get a buncha t-shirts--one for every day of the week. What d'you think about 'Die young and leave a beautiful corpse'?'

Even Hutch managed to chuckle at that macabre humor, clearing his throat of the tears that hid there. "You're pushing forty, old man, not all that young."

"I'll be forty," Starsky said in wonderment. "We'll have t'have a big ol' party." He paused, then continued ruefully. "Not all that beautiful, either."

"You are to me," Hutch replied honestly, emotions crowding his soul until one more would surely rip him to shreds. This wasn't fair! It wasn't right, but it was truth, and reality, and stark, pure survival. Starsky had acted on instinct, doing what he needed to do to survive, and Hutch could only follow suit.

"I wasn't fishing for a compliment."

"I know, I still meant it."

Starsky swallowed audibly and Hutch clutched the phone, seeing that beloved face in his mind's eye. "I'm sorry, Hutch."

"I'm sorry, too." Hutch gulped, feeling Starsky's strength of will buoying him up. "Now, let's get on with the rest of our lives, and forget that phrase ever existed," he declared as forthright as it was possible to be, under the circumstances. It would take time, for both of them, but they'd find their support and commitment from each other.


"Do you still have that list of dates for the MCAT?"

"It's somewhere in the mess of papers in my box."

Hutch smiled, just a little one, but it was the first one of the last four days. Starsky had a large blue plastic storage bin in his hospital room for all the books, magazines and correspondence that had accumulated since he'd taken up residence at St. Joe's. For all Starsky's tidiness at home, he was just the opposite with papers and filing. Hutch had no doubt that Starsky could find the registration forms without any problem, but anyone else would be sorting through get-well cards and old crosswords for a week.

"Then fill it out for me, Homer, 'cause I want to send it out before the deadline."

"That's my boy." Starsky's voice was full of smiles. "Can you bring me a pizza?"

"Sausage'll give you heartburn, and pepperoni's been known to do worse."

"Not true. It's…" Starsky paused, obviously weighing his options. "Mushrooms and olives then, with extra cheese."

"That'll be 12.95 and a tip," Hutch teased, lighthearted and happy.

"Will you take a kiss?"

"From you, several, and we'll call it even."


With the return of his appetite, Starsky also gained stamina and his old joie de vive. His immune system and platelet count were still dangerously low and he'd been unable to shake a persistent bacteria that left him with a vague but annoying cough, and the need for IV antibiotics. Despite these limitations, he still wanted to be up and around as often as possible, and took to cruising the halls, first in the wheelchair, but quickly graduating to Canadian crutches, which helped immensely to bolster his self-confidence and upper body strength. The nurses were continually having to hunt him down for his meds and therapy because Starsky made friends with everyone on the unit from the oldest, sickest patient to the youngest and most frightened. As Hutch had predicted early on, Starsky got on famously with the Colonel, listening to the old man's war stories with obvious interest, and joining in with a few lurid tales of cop life. Nobody was at all surprised how easily Starsky slipped between the generations; he'd always been a gregarious, fun loving person. And now with his newfound freedom, he exploited every opportunity to rejoin the world, even if it was only in the confines of the Rose Tree Unit. He loved going over to the children's playroom and joining in the games. The hospital had purchased a portable Donkey Kong game, and there were tournaments nearly every afternoon. Starsky gained quite a reputation with two teenaged boys, since he not only shared their interests, but also their cancer diagnosis.

Getting out more also helped with the loneliness, since Hutch was in charge of an investigation into a drug ring that had ironically come to the attention of the police after his search of Vinnie Schroeder's basement cache. Big time criminals, some of whom Schroeder had named in his plea bargain, were involved and Hutch was out for blood. They might not be Schroeder himself, but it was still a victory for the department. Starsky completely understood his partner's need to be involved in the case, but it also meant that Hutch was working long hours just when Starsky was feeling better and getting back into the swing of things. It was frustrating, and a bit scary to think of him out on stakeout, possibly in danger, even though Hutch assured Starsky that because he was the lead detective, he was not in the line of fire. He was, however, gone many nights in a row, and no matter how much Huggy, Daisy, Minnie Kaplan, and a host of other friends tried to divert him, Starsky still missed his number one fan.

Thus, it was that Starsky woke one night very late, thinking that some new nurse was making a hell of a lot of noise, and found his blond standing over the bed just watching him.

"Hey," Starsky said sleepily. "You make the bust?"

"We did indeed." Hutch ran the back of his finger down Starsky's cheek. "You're getting some peach fuzz."

"Yeah," he agreed. The hair was slowly growing back again, since it had over two weeks since he'd had chemo. Just a few wisps so far, but his hair had proven to be amazingly resilient.

"Siddown and tell me all about it," Starsky waggled his eyebrows like Groucho Marx proposing the secret word. He pushed himself up in the bed, leaning back on the plethora of pillows behind him, a random cough escaping before he could prevent it.

"Carmen de la Rosa and Mike Hennessey had joined forces on the West side to corner the market--producing crack like it was sugar rock candy and selling it to all and comers. We had a couple of really young looking African American guys undercover there, they made some contacts, turned out to be easier than anyone could have expected," Hutch summarized, sounding tired.

"Must be more to it than that," Starsky guessed, watching his lover shrewdly.

"Details, Starsk, just the usual politics and rigmarole that I don't want to get into right now," Hutch sighed. "The kind of stuff I want to leave behind. Didn't see hide nor hair of Schroeder, end of story. But hey, I mailed the MCAT forms in, and we should know when the testing date is in a month or so."

"Good." Starsky nodded with satisfaction. "What else is going on in the real world?"

Hutch snorted a laugh at that, going back to stroking Starsky's cheek and the few strands of hair on his head. "Finally went over to the house to collect the mail and get some clean clothes. There's a letter from Nicky for you, and one from my sister Karen--wonder how we rated both siblings in one week?" He bent forward from the waist, kissing his partner with a sweetness that wrenched at Starsky's heart. "And I don't know what kind of food Rosie is feeding Pansy, but that cat is getting fatter by the day."

"Hmmm, enough about the cat. More on the subject you introduced to the committee just previously to that, Senator," Starsky muttered.

"The finance committee for the war on drugs?" Hutch asked absently, kissing Starsky on the nose, eyelids, and both cheeks before going back to his lips.

"No, something more on the line of sex education…"

"Hmm, seems to me you must have already passed the class." Hutch chuffed a laugh, wiggling when Starsky's hand went straight for his belt and fly.

"Got an A plus, but I need some remedial extra credit 'cause it's been a long time," Starsky answered, going after his prize despite the constant interruption from Hutch's kisses. "Been missing you, Sunshine."

"I'm here now." Hutch sat back, watching Starsky's deliberations. "Need any help?"

"Nope, I know my way around men's underwear." Starsky smiled triumphantly, slipping his hand inside the slit of Hutch's boxers. "Seems like it's been forever."

"It has." Hutch caught his breath and closed his eyes in bliss when Starsky curled his fingers around the hardening length. "I couldn't at the end of January… not right away. I was too scared."

"S'okay, not like anything was happening in this camp, either." Starsky bit down on his bottom lip, thrilling in the contact of his palm with Hutch's cock. Now, if only his own plumbing would join in the fun and games, everything would be perfect. He'd always loved the spontaneity of their sexual exploits, and cancer had put a severe crimp in that. But this was perfect--unexpected, joyful, and healing for the both of them. Rubbing his thumb over the head, Starsky closed his eyes, slipping a hand into his own pajama bottoms. His cock was definitely interested, but having some difficulties in execution.

"Let me do that," Hutch whispered. "As long as you keep doing what you are right now."

"It's a deal," Starsky sighed with pleasure when Hutch slid the pajamas down his hips enough to unveil his penis, and began lightly stroking the sides. The sensation was electrifying, sending tiny shock waves of joy up Starsky's spine, and he redoubled his efforts on Hutch's silky skin. Already, the long shaft had swelled to capacity and throbbed with a steady pulse that Starsky found comforting and exciting all at the same time. He could feel the sticky wetness leaking from the tip, and used the fluid to slide his fingers under the foreskin and circle the head once, then twice. Hutch shuddered, clamping his mouth shut to stifle a cry and came, the intensity of the action commuting down his arm to his hand. Starsky froze when those fingers compressed around his penis, but the action only made him increase in size, bursting out of both ends of Hutch's fist like a sausage in a too small casing. It felt fantastic, magical, and he thrust into the warmth of that grasp, his completion following Hutch's by only a few moments.

"Think we woke anybody?" Starsky giggled weakly, a tickle of a cough irritating the back of his throat. It always happened when he exerted himself in any way. Damned inconvenient.

"Nobody came in with a code cart." Hutch nuzzled the side of his neck.

"Nah, this kind of thing gets my heart going without a single zap from the defibrillator." Starsky petted Hutch's long blond hair, working his fingers through it as if he could weave it into cloth. "You ever listen to the radio an' your favorite song seems to last on a second or two, and you wish it would play twice, but some crappy song you hate seems to take about half an hour to finish?"


"That's how it is in here some days, Hutch." Starsky leaned into the other man's warmth, forcibly clearing his throat, but the cough still burst forth with a harsh sound. "When you're here it's okay, but the rest of the time…"

"I'm sorry, baby."

"I'm not complaining to make you feel guilty, or anything. Just statin' the facts."

"Just the facts, sir."

Starsky elbowed Hutch in the ribs with a giggle, but another cough interrupted and he lay back, breathing raggedly, the spasm harsh enough to make his chest ache.

"Still fighting that last infection, huh?" Hutch rubbed his chest in sympathy.

"Doctors can't seem to tell if this is the same old one that won't leave, or a new one." Starsky sighed. "I'm not getting any sicker, but they have to keep switching antibiotics 'cause it's not going away, and John thinks a virus came in on the coattails and it's mixing things up."

"Antibiotics don't fight viruses, only bacteria," Hutch agreed.

"See, I never knew that 'til John told me. You'll ace those MCAT tests," Starsky said positively. "My Hutch, the doctor."

"My Starsky, the optimist."

"S'what got me through, imagining you sitting there on stake-out without backup--without me." Starsky ducked his head down, the fear that had kept him awake several nights in a row back full force. He despaired of not being there for his partner during the investigation, fearful that even with Hutch in the background a stray bullet could still find him.

"Starsk, you know I had backup, I wasn't alone."

"Were any shots fired?"

"A couple, for a minute or two," Hutch admitted.

"Anyone get hit?"

"No," Hutch replied tightly, obviously unwilling to talk about it but still curious as to why Starsky was being so insistent. "What are you so worried about?"

"What if you got shot?" Starsky asked, the stark pain and fear as real as if it had already happened. How could he go on without his rock? "What if you died?" His voice broke on the last word, and he would have sobbed outright, but instead pushed a hand into his mouth, using it like a dam for his emotions.

"Starsky!" Hutch looked astonished, and completely flummoxed. "Sweet boy, I didn't even come close to the action." He reached out, stroking Starsky's cheek again and easing the balled fist out to cradle it between his palms. "I'm not going to die."

"I kept seeing you lying there, bleeding…like you always said I was, against the Torino, curled over."

"I promised not to go out by myself, and I stand by that vow," Hutch murmured, curling Starsky in towards his chest. Placing his hand over the healed bullet wound on Hutch's upper left shoulder, Starsky could feel the heart beating steadily under the cage of ribs and skin, and willed his own heart into a matching beat. "And I was driving an old Buick. The Torino was nowhere in sight."

"You went against Gunther by yourself."

The statement hung in the suddenly heavy air like a grenade with the pin pulled free. "T-that was…different," Hutch whispered thickly. "W-why'd you bring that up?"

"Cause we do for each other." Starsky closed his eyes, his ear to Hutch's broad chest, listening to the comforting lub dub of the valiant pump, his fear retreating. "What stopped you, huh?"

"Stopped me from what?"

"Huggy told me," Starsky said simply. "The first night you were on stake out, I wasn't feelin' too hot. Guess I did too much during the day, and sure paid the price. When Huggy came over, I wanted a diversion to get my mind off stuff, and we started talking. I dunno how it came up but he told me about the days after the shooting, when I was out of it."

"Why?" Hutch sounded scared in a way Starsky had never heard before.

"Because he said you had that look again. You hide it, but it's there." Starsky didn't even want to look up at his lover's face, but he could hear the effect he was having on Hutch. The heart he so treasured had picked up speed, pounding twice as fast as only a moment ago. "And that he thought, if I died, you'd go out and destroy something... cause 'a me." When Hutch didn't answer Starsky continued, smashing down all the walls surrounding those taboo subjects they weren't supposed to discuss. His death was number one, right at the top. The thing was, he had died, for almost ten minutes according to Huggy, and yet returned, like a phoenix from the ashes, only to be facing death from a different source. Internal instead of external menace. "But you didn't. Gunther went to trial. So how'd you do it, Hutch? I woulda shot him where he sat if the tables'd been turned."

"Oh, God," Hutch said, and it sounded like a prayer, a supplication for strength. "You don't know how hard it was to handcuff that bastard and bring him in. The S.F. cops were right outside the door, I hadn't gone in completely alone, but I needed that moment to look into his eyes and try to understand, try to know why he took you away from me."

"I didn't go away," Starsky whispered, as shaken as he had been when Huggy told him of Hutch's terrifying obsession with Gunther.

"I was so afraid, Starsk. You were hooked up to all the machines and there wasn't anything I could do. And the one thing…" Hutch grit his teeth, the words like knife wounds. "The one thing I wanted to do wasn't legal, and I was a cop. I think most of all, that's why I don't want to be a cop anymore. Because if you die…I want to be a doctor, one who can fight cancer and stop it from killing somebody else."

"Amen," Starsky said softly, pushing back Hutch's shirt so he could kiss the old shoulder scar that had pillowed his head.


Hutch rushed down the corridor of the hospital, afraid he was too late, but the bustle of activity at the door to the auditorium proved that the presentation had not yet begun. Slowing his speed, he took a deep breath, swiping his longish bangs off his forehead. The weather had heated up considerably and it was a sticky, muggy day for February. Rumors of Schroeder sightings had surfaced late the day before and Hutch had spent most of the morning with his task force going over strategies. He'd even handed his Academy class over to a teacher's aid to get more time in on building the case. Apparently, in the week since the round up of De La Rosa and Hennessey, their absence had put a big hole in the drug supply. Speculation on the street was that Schroeder was going to attempt a come back despite the warrants out for his arrest, and the ongoing efforts by Bay City Supervisor Adrianna Michaelson-Hsieh. Hutch had already spoken to the supervisor and her husband Cam Yin, vowing to bring Schroeder to justice. But without a concrete lead he had time to attend the latest display of limberness from the Bay City Girl's Gymnastics team.

The large room was already crowded with a variety of spectators--half friends and family of the performers, and the other half ambulatory patients from the hospital. Many of the people wearing robes and slippers, some pushing an IV pole beside them, looked excited to get out of their dreary rooms for half an hour to enjoy the show. A few nurses hovered around a group of children from the peds ward, but Hutch could easily see over their heads to that of his partner. Starsky was wearing a surgical mask to minimize his exposure to germs, which had prompted a long argument with John Davies, the night before, when the order came down that he had to wear it to leave the Rose Tree Unit. Obviously Davies had won. But Hutch smiled to see Starsky in his element--noise, gaiety, and lots of friends and children of all ages. Starsky's blue eyes glowed over the edge of the pale blue paper mask, his curls were coming back in a wiry tangle, and he'd put on another couple of pounds, unless Hutch was very much mistaken. Starsky looked like he was recovering, coming back from a long illness, which was ironic since he was far from healthy.

Still, Hutch was determined not to ruin his lover's first foray into the real world. He waved a long arm, catching Starsky's attention. He navigated through the crowd to join Starsky and Edith Dobey, who was fussing with an oversized boombox and an assortment of cassette tapes.

"Hutch!" Starsky called, his voice only slightly muffled by the paper covering. "Edith said they collected enough money for everyone to go to the nationals in Washington, and today will be the first show with the new routines." He gestured at the girls warming up on the mats laid out in front of all the chairs. Rosie saw Hutch and dimpled before spreading her legs and sliding down into the splits. "They leave in late spring--March 27th, right after my birthday," Starsky chattered. "How'd you like that?"

"Wonderful," Hutch agreed, who'd given a substantial donation to the cause. "Those new leotards look nice," he said, admiring the matching outfits, green with a pink diagonal stripe and a small team logo just above the right leg.

"Aria designed them. She seems to have a real flair." Edith nodded. "I've got to round up the girls for the opening routine. Rainbow is having her usual stage fright, already vomited once. Looks terrible."

"After performing for so long?" Starsky asked sympathetically. "Hutch gets stage fright, too. Hey, why don't you go give her a patented Hutchinson pep talk?"

"Oh, that's all right, she'll survive. It's probably because her mother couldn't make it today," Edith assured.

"I'll do it," Hutch said. He'd have done anything right then to keep that happy glow on Starsky's face. The characteristic, lop-sided grin was covered, but Hutch knew it was there.

Rainbow did indeed look terrible. She was sitting on the floor with her legs spread, apathetically going through the motions of stretching. Even her Shirley Temple curls were droopy. Hutch was vaguely reminded of Starsky on a day after chemo, and pushed that dismal thought away. He remembered Rainbow had lost her lunch on Mickey Mouse's shoes in Disneyland, and decided to stay away from that memory as well. "Hey, sweetheart, worrying about the performance?"

"My tummy always feels like a washing machine going full blast before a competition," Rainbow admitted sorrowfully. "Today it's worse than ever."

"I've had more than a few butterflies myself whenever Starsky convinces me to get up in front of a crowd and sing." Hutch commiserated. "Anyone ever tell you the secret of pretending the entire audience is sitting around watching you in their underwear?"

Rainbow giggled faintly, bright discs of red blossoming in her sallow cheeks. "That's funny. What kind of underwear does Starsky have?"

Ah, Hutch chuckled to himself, another Starsky fan. "He sometimes wears shorts with smiley faces on them."

This started a gale of laughter from Rainbow. The other girls who'd come over to collect their comrade for the show heard the tail end of Hutch's comment and started to laugh, too.

"So does my older brother!" Rosie crowed. "I gave 'em to him for Christmas."

"Cal wears boxer shorts?" Samantha Goldwyn asked in a tone that proved to Hutch she'd shifted her crush from Starsky onto Cal Dobey. Still an older man to the 14 year old, but probably a better choice, since Starsky was already taken.

"Get into formation, girls!" Edith called, pressing down on the cassette recorder's play button. The bouncy music of one of Madonna's top forty hits began and the girls scooped up long wands topped with colorful ribbons, launching into their first number.

Hutch sat down next to Starsky, his left leg pressed up against Starsky's right one. They'd always sat closely together, even before they became a couple, but now every time Hutch did so he cherished the warmth and solidity that was his best friend. He truly couldn't fathom life without David Starsky.

"Whatever you said to her, she's doin' fine now," Starsky whispered.

"Told her your underwear had smiley faces," Hutch said innocently, pretending to focus on the girls but watching Starsky out of the corner of his eye. Starsky's eyebrows shot upwards, his expression one of disbelief and amazement. Hutch couldn't help himself, it felt good to be able to rib Starsky like the old days. Maybe he'd come around to accepting Starsky's decision, finally.

"So what're you wearing under those khakis, Mr. Clean?" Starsky snarked under his breath, moving his hand just enough that it 'accidentally' brushed Hutch's fly and the mound underneath.

"Starsk," Hutch hissed, his cheeks burning. "Pay attention to the show."

Starsky's dark blue eyes were like shining bulbs above the mask, laugh lines crinkling them into a web of joyfulness. He'd gotten Hutch back by invoking the oldest trick in the book, just to embarrass him. And Hutch reflected ruefully that it worked just about every time.

The girls put on a fantastic show, following up their ensemble piece with individual floor routines just like the last time Hutch had watched them at Disneyland. Kristianne, always the shyest of the bunch, had gained some confidence in the last few months and performed an astonishing dance across the floor that had her in the air more often than on the ground. Rosie Dobey was just exceptional, all of her moves graceful, precise and perfectly balanced. She never wavered, never tripped, tumbling through her moves with a smile that shone brighter than stars. This girl was going to go far.

Once the applause had died down and everyone was congratulated, Hutch accompanied Starsky back upstairs, quite impressed at how far his partner had come in such a short time. This was not the man who couldn't even sit unassisted at the end of January. Starsky played with the elevator buttons, tapping his crutch against the floorboards, radiating unfocused restlessness. But there were moments, every now and then, when Hutch saw the sadness behind the façade. Starsky was trying to live everything to the fullest, to store up what time he had left, and neither of them knew how long that might be.

"Oh, Hutch!" Calliope, the ward clerk, had changed so dramatically Hutch barely recognized her, and he'd seen her the day before. Gone were the punk rock trappings, replaced by short-sleeved pink sweater above a pink and white mini skirt. Her short hair was fluffed out in a vaguely poodle-like do, still showing vestiges of the various colors she'd dyed it all winter, but now more blond than green and orange.

"Calliope." Hutch stopped in shock, then gave an astute guess. "New boyfriend?"

"Yeah." she grinned at him, fiddling with dangly silver earrings. "How'd you know?"

"He's psychic," Starsky said straight-faced.

"Wow, like that's so cool. Anyway, your Captain Dobey? The big bear kinda guy? He called to say some sort of major police thing is going on, and where were you?" She held out her hands like a milkmaid hefting her buckets. "I didn't know you were here. But now you are, so that's the message."

"How long ago?" Hutch asked, the performance only last half an hour, and Dobey had known he'd be there.

"Five minutes?"

"I've give him a call back from Starsky's room," Hutch promised, heading down the hall. "Is it my imagination or has all that hair dye gone to her brain?"

"She's an original," Starsky settled onto the bed, closing his eyes with fatigue for a moment before stripping off the surgical mask. "I hate this, makes me feel like I can't breathe." He tossed it into the trashcan next to the nightstand. "Calliope's really pretty smart. She's like going to college to be a pharmacist, but has to make money to pay her own way. She just sounds goofy."

"Takes one to know one?" Hutch teased lightly, dialing the station's number.

"You're on a roll today, buddyboy."

"Captain?" Hutch asked when the operator transferred him to the correct office. "What's going down?"

"The undercovers officers--Cooper and Farnham, called in. Schroeder is in the city, and staying at the Alhambra Hotel on 38th Avenue. We're getting a team into position, but you need to be there."

"Of course," Hutch agreed. "On my way." He ended the connection, giving Starsky the exciting news. "You okay?" he concluded, still not used to Starsky being up and about for extended periods of time.

"Yeah, got a nap planned for after lunch, and then there's the Donkey Kong tournament of champions going on for the rest of the afternoon. Jeremy Keller's back for his next chemo, but his drip doesn't start 'til tonight, and he's a powerhouse on wheels until then."

"Have fun with the other kids, Starsky." Hutch ruffled his curls. "And eat all your veggies at lunch."

"118 pounds this morning, Hutch. John says I'm out of here at the end of the week!" Starsky crowed.

"I'm holding you to that."

"It's a promise. Just think what we could do alone in our own house."

"You would mention that right before I have to go…"

"Hey." Starsky caught him by the arm, pulling him down into kissing range. His lips pressed almost savagely against Hutch's, the emotion intense. "Be safe, for me. I hate when you're going out there without me."

"I'll stand behind all the younger guys and wear a vest. I've got something to look forward to, too." Hutch returned the kiss with heat, fervently wishing he didn't have to leave so soon, but the imminent arrest of Schroeder was a powerful motivator.

Just before he crossed the doorframe he heard Starsky say "Hutch?" in a tiny voice that nearly severed all of Hutch's resolve.

"Yeah?" he said carefully, afraid that anything more would betray how needy he was feeling just then, too.

"Just wanted to say your name again," Starsky replied. When Hutch looked back at him, Starsky lifted his chin in a brave little gesture, but there was no denying the fear reflected there.

"You always have my back, Starsk," Hutch promised and then he left, almost running out of the hospital as if his haste could get the whole arrest over sooner so that he could get back to Starsky that much faster.

Nothing ever goes as planned. Everything started out well enough, Hutch's handpicked team ringing the Alhambra, ready for whatever came down, were confident that the felon would soon be captured. Unfortunately, word had somehow spread farther than just the police department, and as Hutch was adjusting his bulletproof vest in the shadow of a building across from the fated hotel, a startlingly familiar figure strode across the street and entered the front door of the Alhambra.

"Sarge!" Billy Saeteurn, one of his former students from the Academy had been assigned the role of street cop walking his beat. Not exactly a stretch, since it was his usual bailiwick and the locals had gotten to know him in the short time he'd been around, so he didn't look at all conspicuous. His older advisor, Mac Smithy, had the hotel side of the street. "It's the supervisor's husband!"

"What the hell?" Hutch caught sight Cam Yin Hsieh's back disappearing through the scarred brown door. "He's going to cock this whole thing up for sure."

"We go in?" Lucy Hazard, one of the few female marksmen on the force, stood poised for assault, her dark weapon held like it was an extension of her body.

"I will," Hutch decided swiftly, his gut clenching. This is when he needed Starsky at his side. Starsky centered him, gave him focus. With Saeteurn and the rest of them around him, he just felt burdened by the responsibility for their well-being. "Are there people stationed at the back and on the fire escape?"

"Check," Lucy intoned in such a cop-like way Hutch was vaguely irritated.

"Hold all fire unless I give a signal," Hutch leveled a stiff finger at her, holding up his walkie-talkie. "This goes down as planned or I want chapter and verse as to why it didn't."

Approaching the hotel Hutch didn't allow himself to dwell on the fact that he was ripping to shreds the promise he'd made to Starsky. He couldn't think about personal matters, the way his head and jaw were aching, and the tension knotting up the muscles along his upper back until he felt like his shoulders were butting up to his ears. Such things were minor distractions and had no place on the battlefield. Hutch walked forcefully into the lobby, but there wasn't a soul to be seen, not even a desk clerk. He had only one second to assimilate this fact when shots came from the stairwell to his left. Flattening himself on a threadbare carpet, Hutch bellywalked backwards towards the door, breathing in shallow puffs to slow his racing heart.

Oh God, let him get out of this alive, and before Starsky heard it on the news, so he could explain why he'd gotten himself into such a stupid-ass position!

"Lucy!" Hutch held the walkie-talkie as close to his mouth as he could to lessen the chance of anyone overhearing him. "Shots fired on the first floor landing, get in here!"

A pepper of gunfire forced Hutch to keep his head low, but he managed to pull off return fire of his own, still unable to see who was doing the firing. And what had happened to Cam Yin and the desk clerk? Not to mention the other tenants in the hotel?

The thunder of boots tromping through the front and back doors just increased the ear splitting cacophony, but Hutch felt bolder with such a force beside him. Getting to his feet as Lucy and her troop stormed the stairs, he followed behind, Python held ready.

Cam Yin was slumped against the wall, blood staining his chest and arm, and from several feet away Hutch couldn't tell if he was dead or not. There was a pistol in his hand, something German made, perhaps. At the far end of the hall, a half dozen cops surrounded their quarry, the gruff sound of someone reciting the Miranda in an uninflected voice making Hutch inordinately tired. How had this gone from a well planned maneuver to a farce of a movie shoot out?

Striding down to the huddle, he watched as a grim faced Lucy pulled Schroeder to his feet. Despite what had to be an excruciatingly painful wound on his left shoulder, the weasel gave Hutch a feral grin. "Hutchinson, shoulda known. How's Starsky?"

It took every ounce of willpower not to pound the drug dealer into dust, but Hutch gritted his teeth and returned the smile. "Sorry that he missed the show you put on, Vinnie. I'll tell him you asked about him." He turned, not wanting to look one second longer at the man who'd turned Starsky's world upside down. It didn't matter that the cancer had ultimately been the perpetrator of that offense, Schroeder would always be linked to the events that lead up to the osteosarcoma diagnosis. "Don't let him out of your sight, Hazard, even when the doctors examine him."

"Never entered my mind, Sergeant," she replied tightly.

Doors up and down the corridor began to open, frightened faces peering out, and suddenly there were people everywhere, all talking at once. It took Hutch only a short time to divvy up the jobs to his fellow officers, some to interview the tenants, others to guard the crime scene, and a few to control the crowd that now ringed the hotel as the wail of sirens closed in on the building. Not one of the officers who charged in had been shot, although one had wrenched his knee pretty badly climbing in the second story window from the fire escape. Just the image of the curly haired cop entering through the window reminded Hutch of Starsky. How many times had they burst into a suspect's place, Starsky going low and he higher? Always together, although their separate strengths complimented each other in the field. He was the steady one, most often, holding back, keeping his eyes out for action. Starsky was the go-getter, charging ahead when others might have waited. Hutch had always kept up, even though Starsky was faster, Hutch's longer legs kept him in good stead. Starsky's amazing agility and speed often had him racing down alleys, careening up stairs, leaping from window ledges onto fleeing felons, never worrying that his body would give out on him before his time. Hutch felt old, used up, and too fearful now. This kind of life was so hard, and he was ready to step aside for the younger generation. Even Schroeder's arrest didn't provide the satisfaction it once would have. Because Vinnie Schroeder may had swung the bat, but Starsky's leg had already betrayed him long before. And there was nothing Hutch could do to change that.

"Hutchinson!" Dobey's voice bellowed from the police band radio. Hutch leaned against a black and white, holding the mic in one hand while he massaged his aching shoulders with the other. He felt like crap warmed over for the third time--not good. It was already full dark, and there were no signs that he could leave anytime soon. Once he was done on-site, there were mounds of paperwork to do at the station.

"Yes, Captain?" he sighed.

"What the hell happened there?"

"Cam Yin Hsieh decided to take matters into his own hands, Cap. From witnesses who had rooms to both sides of Schroeder, Hsieh pounded on his door, demanded to be let in, and when Schroeder opened up, they must have both fired. I had just entered the lobby and heard the shots--two in quick succession and then several a few seconds later."

"How's Hsieh?"

"Paramedics said he had a bullet up under the collar bone. He was out cold but breathing when they loaded him on the rig--he must have ducked fast cause there are four or five slugs in the hall from Schroeder's gun, and three in the wall of Schroeder's room, probably fired from Hsieh's H&K pistol."

"And Schroeder?"

"On his way to St. Joe's," Hutch closed his eyes tiredly. Where he would like to be, with Starsky. "With an entourage of police. He had a through and through on the left arm, but was lucid and yelling for his rights when I last saw him. I let Hazard take him in, she'll question him after the doctors check him out."

"You did what you had to, son."

"Capt'n, I didn't do a thing," Hutch said with disgust. In truth he hadn't wanted to be near Schroeder. Something about the perp made him want to wad him up and stuff him down the nearest garbage disposal. "I gotta go--mopping up in progress."

He stayed in place a moment longer, staring down the avenue, over the revolving lights of countless police and emergency vehicles. Schroeder had come back to his old stomping grounds--not two blocks away was the little alley between Del Prado and 39th Ave. where he had hidden the drugs. Shaking his head, Hutch headed back into the hotel.

The night seemed endless, and Hutch ached from every limb. He eventually located the absent desk clerk. The man claimed that he had no prior knowledge of any gun battle, and had been his break. He even pointed to the tattered copy of the OSHA rules providing all employees with a half hour lunch and two fifteen minutes breaks in an 8 hour work shift.

"Sure it was exactly 15 minutes?" Hutch asked sourly, leaning his head on one hand while Perez fidgeted in his chair. "Maybe you took a little longer because you knew something was going down?"

"No, I swear! I gotta--what you call it? Alimony?"

Used to Starsky's malapropisms, it didn't take Hutch too long to decipher Perez. "Alibi?" he corrected.

"Yeah, that's it. I was with Xiocia."

"Sho-sha?" Hutch asked. "How do you spell that?"

"With an 'X'."

"The rest of the letters would be helpful."

Perez spelled out his girlfriend's name. "She's a housekeeper--cleans the first and second floors."

"Where did the two of you stage your assignation?"


Hutch had the urge to use language frowned upon by the department, but bit down on his tongue instead. He longed to talk to Starsky, and not just because his partner was much more suited for this kind of off-kilter interview. "I take it you and…" he consulted his notes, "Xiocia were doing more than having a snack. Where were you?"

"Oh. Right here. In the break room. 'Cause we were on our breaks."

"Lucky for all of us. Did you know Mr. Schroeder was a wanted felon?'

"I seen that lady supe on the TV talkin' about him."

"And you didn't inform the police of his whereabouts?"

"I gotta keep my job, man. I'm married, got four kids at home. I can't call the cops on ever' person rents a room there. I'd be fired on the spot."

So much for the loving, faithful husband and community spirit, Hutch grumbled to himself. "Not even with Supervisor Michaelson-Hsieh offering a substantial reward?"

"Oh, yeah," Perez brightened, then frowned. "I coulda been rich, huh? Wanna know about anybody else? We got ten guests right now, I think some of 'em are wanted."

"Thanks, we'll get back to you." Hutch waved over a blue uniform to escort Perez out, and pressed the heel of his hand into his forehead. The headache had only gotten worse as the night wore on, and he was dead tired. Perez was the last of those needing to be questioned, and if Hutch drove fast, and typed even faster he could get to the squadroom and finished possibly sometime before two in the morning. Possibly.

He'd barely slid into the security of his battered car when the radio squawked.

"Got a call for you, Hutch," Mary Jane, from dispatch called. "It's Sergeant Hazard, at the hospital."

"Lucy?" Hutch answered, rubbing his eyes. "What'd you get from Schroeder?"

"The doctors gave him something for the pain while they were bandaging him and he's out until morning. Currently ensconced in a private bed in the prison ward."

Right above Starsky, Hutch thought. "Get some rest, you earned it. I can get over there for interrogation in the morning." That is, if Dobey let him. Seemed very much like Dobey didn't want Hutch's emotional involvement in the case to hamper his job. And on some level Hutch knew that was a valid point, but he would so like to wrap his hands around the drug dealer's neck and squeeze.

The squadroom was nearly deserted by the time Hutch reached his desk. As expected, he found mounds of work on his desk and grimly started in on reducing the pile, but the jangle of the phone broke his concentration.

Guilt rising, Hutch grabbed the receiver. He should have called Starsky, reassured him that he was all right. Reporters and news crews had swarmed around the hotel despite all efforts to keep them away. Starsky probably knew more about the shoot out than Hutch did.

"Hutch?" Starsky's voice wavered for a moment, although it could have been static from the connection. Hutch could easily imagine his partner stuffing down any worry under the cover of light banter, their usual form of communication in a tense situation. "You get the bastard? News showed him being hauled off in an ambulance."

"Well, it's not for public consumption yet, but Cam Yin Hsieh got to him first."

"Do tell? Old fashioned eye for an eye?"

"Don't usually sanction biblical retaliation, but Schroeder had it coming in spades."

"You all right?"

"Yeah, partner." Hutch smiled. "I could feel you right beside me the whole time. I got a mountain of official rhetoric to get through before morning. See you tomorrow, okay?"

"Can you bring me a coupla new shirts? I wanna look good when I walk outta here on Friday. Mika says she's gonna take pictures."

"Red shirt or blue?" Hutch leaned back in his chair, enjoying the brief respite from his job. Imagining Starsky pulling one of the shirts over his short crown of curls.

"Both, then you can tell me which one looks best."

"Always did like the red one, Gilligan."

"Then, just bring that one."

Hutch could hear the smile in Starsky's voice which made him smile in return. "I may surprise you, babe." He knew he should get off the line and back to work, but he was loathe to end the connection. "Hey, how'd your Donkey Kick game go?"

"Donkey KONG, Hutch. I left those kids in the dust."

"Starsky, you're older than they are, shouldn't you be a little nicer?"

"Hah, when Jeremy first taught me how to use a joystick he used to kick my butt daily. It's payback time."

"How's he doing on his chemo?"

"Jeremy and Farley are tough, man. Farley's nearly through with his course, and it looks really good. He doesn't puke all the time like I used to. Jeremy was only diagnosed at the beginning of the month so it's rougher on him," Starsky sighed. "God, Hutch, just watchin' both of them go through it. How'd you do it? How'd you stand to be around me?"

"Love, Starsky, that's all I needed." Something in his chest twisted and Hutch wished he were there right now, to see Starsky's face when they talked about this. It almost seemed as though Starsky only brought up some of his feelings for his illness when Hutch wasn't able to talk long, as if he didn't want to dwell on what scared him, but still needed to talk about it.

"And the Colonel, and Marian…"

"Who's Marian?"

"A really nice lady--she came from up North, in the San Fernando Valley, I think, cause her local hospital couldn't provide the care we got here," Starsky related. "Brain tumor--on her second surgery. She's got this big scar across her head. I showed her the ones on my chest."

Hutch pressed the palm of his hand against his mouth, not sure whether to laugh or cry at this sweet gesture. Starsky had long gotten over his self-consciousness about the lasting aftermath of Gunther's attack, but he didn't usually show them off to many people. His soft heart was both an asset and a detriment in a ward where everyone had a terminal disease. "Starsk, you're becoming a good friend to these people."

"I never thought of it that way. But it's nice t'get out, see that I'm not the only one…" Starsky stopped himself, stuffing away the maudlin emotions. There was a long pause and Hutch expected Starsky to say good night, but then he spoke again. "Hutch, remember when Daisy came that day, brought over some cookies?"

"Back in December."

"Yeah. She-she used to have a twin, Florian. Ain't that a weird name for a boy?"

"Never heard that name before," Hutch said, anxious for reasons he couldn't account for.

"He had osteo when he was fourteen. He died," he said, sounding detached and flat as if he really didn't want to be discussing this right now. "That's what she told me. I don't know why I couldn't tell you…it just…" He stopped again, and Hutch could almost imagine him sitting there, one hand propping up his head, the other holding the phone to his ear. "And she said that the only way to survive was never stop communicating."

"Aw, Starsk…"

"I love you. That's all I gotta say. I'm pooped."

Hutch could tell when he was being warned in no uncertain terms not to say anything that would make either of them any more emotional that they already were. "S'been a long day. I love you, too, you big lummox."

"You coming by tomorrow?"

"Guarantee it."

Surprisingly cheered by the call, Hutch tackled his work with more enthusiasm. As it was, he left for home at one minute to two. His whole body ached with a fierceness he hadn't experienced for a long time. The headache had never gone away, pounding steadily behind his forehead with a steady beat that was very nearly nauseating. He didn't even get fully undressed before falling into bed, never even noticing when Pansy burrowed into the curve of his warm body.


Starsky loved wearing shorts. He'd always been a big believer in recycling ruined jeans by cutting them off, fraying the ends and extending their wear for years, but now with one leg far shorter than the other, shorts were practical as well as comfortable. He pulled on a pair of red jogging shorts that Edith Dobey had donated earlier in the month. They had once been Cal's before the boy hit the 6'2'' mark, and these had a narrower waist size than Starsky's old ones.

Dressed for the day, he poked his head out of his room, snooping unrepentantly. After all, he was a detective, snooping was what he did best. Freed from all but a generalized feeling of illness, Starsky enjoyed participating in the rhythm of life that made up the unit. These people had become part of his family and he was interested in each and every one of them. The Colonel already had visitors, so Starsky didn't go in to suggest a game of checkers. Further down the hall, a nurse was carrying a chemo bag into Sherry Martin's room, and Starsky made a mental note to go visit Sherry later with some moral support. In the other direction, John Davies was schmoozing with the nurses at the main station, a file of papers tucked under his arm. Starsky headed that way, since it looked the liveliest.

"Hey, you old reprobate," Starsky greeted his doctor by poking the rubber bottom of his crutch against John's Achilles tendon. "Shouldn't you be healing the sick and raising the dead?"

"Well." John wiped his fingers on a napkin before signing a med order with a flourish. "You survived my bedside manner so far, even oncologists get a break once in a while."

"Doctor Davies just wanted donuts." Katie grinned, flipping her hand over a tempting selection as if wafting the donut aroma towards Starsky. "Only reason he ever stops here."

"And you're always promoting all that dark green leafy rabbit food," Starsky sneered good-naturedly.

"'Course, it's the only reason Starsky ever emerges from his room, either," she laughed. "Which one do you want? Jelly or custard filling?"

"Jelly," Starsky ordered.

"No wonder you actually put on some weight," John observed. "I hope you're getting some nutrition with those empty calories."

"Took his multivitamin this morning like a good little patient," Katie promised because Starsky's mouth was full.

From her desk adjacent to the nurse's station Calliope answered the phone with an efficient "Rose Tree Unit, may I help you?" Listening for a moment, she waved at Starsky. "Just one moment, please, David Starsky is right here." Placing the caller on hold, she told the surprised man to pick up line 36 on the phone by his elbow.

"Is it Hutch?" he asked, licking jelly off his thumb.

"No, a woman. Edith Dobey?" When Calliope said the name, tendrils of fear dripped acid into Starsky's belly.

Starsky put the receiver to his ear, "Edith, is something wrong?"

"Oh, David, I'm so sorry, I never…"

"Is something wrong with Hutch?" Starsky blurted, now scared out of his mind.

Edith laughed slightly, "Not that I know of, I was worried about you. How are you feeling?"

"I'm okay," Starsky answered shakily. As long as Hutch wasn't hurt, everything was great. "Is it Dobey? What's happened?"

"I really didn't know Rainbow was sick when she did the performance yesterday, or I never would have let her come--not to a hospital. I thought it was her usual stage fright."

"Rainbow's sick?"

"Not just Rainbow, now Rosie and Aria have the flu, too," she sighed, sounding more upset than Starsky had heard in a long time. "They'll recover, but what about you? Are you having aches, nausea, fever?"

"No to all of the above," Starsky vigorously assured her. "Past all that. So half the troop has the flu, and you were afraid I got sick, too? Hutch was the one who talked to Rainbow."

"Oh, dear, I'll call Harold to send him home."

"I'll tell the nurses here, but Rainbow was pretty far away from most of the audience. I don't think you need to worry about it. But send Rosie-posie a kiss and a hug for me, will ya?"

Starsky replaced the phone thoughtfully, giving Katie the news. She called over to the regular peds ward where a majority of the audience had come from, but not one of the children there were showing any symptoms. Starsky then tried Hutch at home, but only got their answering machine, so he left a few sweet words for Pansy to listen to, and hung up.

"I'll try later, got P.T right now," Starsky said just as his therapist, Paolo, got off the elevator. He was back to being worried again. Hutch was doing too much, overworked with the Academy and the recent shootout with Schroeder, just ripe to catch a virus. Glancing up at the ceiling in the direction of the prison ward Starsky curled his lip, hoping that murdering drug dealer Schroeder was having some really painful needle stick, or better yet, a urine catheter placed just then.

"Come on, David," Paolo said, pronouncing the name as if Starsky and the famous statue by Michaelangelo were one and the same. "More practice with the prosthetic."

Starsky grimaced. He hated the odd looking artificial limb. It clamped on tightly to his stump, hurt like the dickens, and was difficult to walk on. Just when he'd gotten quite limber with a single crutch, the doctors decided he needed two feet again. "My leg hurts today," he proclaimed defiantly, eyeing the unwieldy bundle Paolo had under his arm. "Can't we just go to the pool for a swim, and a massage after?"

"Show 'em all by walking out of here," John Davies said mildly, strolling towards the elevator.

"Yeah, I could," Starsky groused, but followed the physical therapist down to the therapy room located near the solarium.

He did not enjoy himself at all. Some days therapy, while painful, could be challenging and fun, but this had been just brutal, agonizing work. He wasn't lying when he'd said his leg hurt. It still ached nearly all the time; cramps as if his foot was locked into a ballet point giving him hell at the most inopportune times, such as when wearing the prosthetic.

Exhausted, Starsky retired to his bed for an hour, dozing. The phone rang loudly, jerking him out of a nice dream where he and Hutch were surrounded by three overly large bad guys. but he flipped two of them without batting an eye while Hutch disposed of the third. And he was wearing his blue and white striped Adidas on both feet.

"Hey," Hutch said, and even his voice sounded sick. Starsky wondered if he'd sounded that way after every single round of chemo and had immediate empathy.

"Hey, yourself. You got the bad guy, huh?"

"You already knew that."

"I meant Rainbow's flu."

"I got to work, sat down in front of a pile almost as big as the one I'd just dispatched with the night before, and Dobey comes out yelling 'Hutchinson!'."

"Sounds about right."

"Sent me home."

"Are you there now?"

"Yep, on the couch, but Pansy's so fat she can't jump up here anymore."

"How're you feeling?"

"A little like you used to--sore, tired, temperature, don't want to move…"

"It's all coming back to me. Rest, liquids, aspirin, and afternoon TV."

"You think that'll cure me, doc?"

"Ah, mais oui, mon petit chou-chou."

"What did you just call me?"

"The French consider cabbage to be the ultimate sexy vegetable. Suits you."

"If I'm a leafy green, are you a big slab of chocolate?"

"Wouldn't you like to know?"

"Ugh--now I'm nauseated again."

"I always seem to have that affect on people." Starsky grinned affectionately and kissed the phone wishing it were pale Hutchinson flesh. "There, right on your hot forehead. Go to sleep."

"For once I'm the sick one."

"Yeah, an' I don't like it any better. Wish I could be there to make you some of my famous chicken soup."

"You don't have any famous chicken soup recipe."

"Yes, I do. It comes in a red and white can. Andy Warhol even did a painting of it."

"I'm going to bed, Starsky."

"G'night, John-boy," Starsky said, and hung up. He hated knowing Hutch was sick at home alone and there was nothing he could do about it. He couldn't call Edith Dobey, since she certainly had her hands full with a sick daughter, and Starsky wasn't quite as cavalier about his own health as he liked to pretend. As much as he wanted to race over to Dahlia Street to nurse Hutch back to health, he didn't want to come down with the flu himself, on top of everything else. He'd finished the neverending course of antibiotics for the pneumonia one day ago, and had only three more days to go before his release. The last thing he wanted was a relapse when he was this short, as they used to say in Viet Nam, before a discharge date. He'd have to stick it out, keeping in contact with his lover by phone. Maybe Huggy could brave the sick room?


One day was very like the next in the Rose Tree Unit when there were no visitors to look forward to, and therapy was a torture session to be endured. Starsky found he was growly and out of sorts on Wednesday morning. Hutch was still convalescing, although less feverish, and Dr. Davies had declared that he had to stay away until Friday morning before he would be allowed near someone with an all but nonexistent immune system. Starsky figured some of his white blood cells must be doing their jobs, since he hadn't gotten what Rosie Dobey termed the Rainbow plague, so he considered the whole quarantine vastly unfair. Even Dobey and Huggy couldn't come up to the hospital since they'd had contact with the flu sufferers. And since Starsky was due to get out on Friday, he'd hoped to see his lover before then--preferably with the asked for clothes. He couldn't decide whether he felt even more in prison than usual, or that Hutch had been assigned to some far off Siberian Gulag. Made for nice, melodramatic self pity to wallow in, but served little other purpose except to highlight how much he missed Hutch.

In that evening he'd talked on the phone with all the sickies, including Patient Zero, Rainbow, who was now on the mend, and visited both Sherry Martin and Jeremy after their respective chemo doses. Starsky was beginning to feel like the only even halfway healthy person on the planet, and that wasn't saying much. For that matter, with his annoying phantom pain, and the real one caused by extensive use of the artificial limb in the last few days, he wasn't feeling all that well, himself. He didn't go out for a morning donut as he had for the last week, and curled up with his old favorite TV program, Telefrancais with the French speaking Pineapple, during lunch.

About three thirty in the afternoon, Starsky was seriously bored. He needed something to distract him from his miseries, and finally hauled himself up out of bed and down the hall for a chat with whoever might be found at the nurse's station. It was a busy day, since Marion-of-the-brain-tumor had had a stroke, and much of the staff were helping with her. Calliope looked frazzled by the sheer number of calls on her switchboard, and with shift change happening at the moment, all the nurses were rushed and harried, even the new group just arriving. Starsky helped himself to a chocolate from an open box of See's near the main desk telephone, listening idly to the day shift charge nurse giving report to her evening shift counterpart.

"Marian Vaughn with a brain tumor in 303 is really bad, cerebral hemorrhage this morning, we nearly coded her," Linda said sadly, rattling off a series of vital signs and lab values that Starsky knew were abnormal. He grieved for the sweet woman who'd come with such high hopes for the Rose Tree Unit.

"The Colonel, pancreatic cancer in 305, is doing very well and should be going home soon--he's tolerating his chemo without many side effects, and a home nurse will be administering it from now on," Linda continued and glanced over Mika's head at Starsky with a teasing frown. "David Starsky, osteosarcoma, in 307 continues to hang around the nurse's station stealing sweets, and will be leaving us by Friday as long as Hutch gets over his flu. His vitals have been rock stable and…"

"We'll all miss you." Mika winked at him. "But not too much. I've got Jeremy this afternoon, David. Can you go check on him so I can finish here? Katie said he's still having some emesis."

"What, am I suddenly an expert on that?" Starsky pretended to complain, but he liked that the nurses trusted his judgment. He'd had enough experience in the field of hurling to know whether Jeremy was just feeling like shit, or really needed extra fluids and more anti-vomit meds.

He practiced a pretty decent swagger with the aid of one crutch, humming to himself, thinking of Hutch, and found Farley in Jeremy's room trying to interest the patient in a game of cards. Jeremy, who looked decidedly pale green, was giving the game his best shot, but didn't have the concentration for Gin. "Not your best color," Starsky remarked, feeling the boy's forehead with the back of his hand. "Mika's on her way. You want a pill, or can you manage a soda?"

Jeremy scrubbed his balding head tiredly, coming away with a handful of brown locks. "Not thirsty, but I'm okay for now."

"Hang tough cause everything's shit time, huh?" Starsky took the cards, shuffling for another round. "How about you and me against Farley?"

"That's no fair, two against one!" Farley complained good-naturedly. "He was winning before."

"You were lettin' me," Jeremy pointed out, pursing his lips and turning an even paler shade of sea foam.

Starsky just handed him the emesis basin, dealing three hands of Gin without a word. All three of them were far too used to the side effects of chemo to fuss much over puking. In a way, it was liberating, and strangely, Starsky could relax with these boys in a way he couldn't do even with Hutch. They all were all in the same boat; sick, bored, tired of having nurses hold their hands. Tired of the sympathy of friends over the loss of their limbs, tired of cancer. Sometimes, just acting like all of this was normal, in a gruesome sort of way, was a relief. The empathy for each other's pain and suffering was there, but it was tempered with an acceptance that you just had to wade through the cesspool on your own to get to the other side. The goal was remission, and each knew the mingled joy and hope of having that in sight.

They played three hands before Starsky noticed that Mika had never come in, as promised.

"Think I'll go get some sodas for everybody." Starsky glanced over at the wheelchair Farley had been using, knowing he couldn't juggle three cans and use a crutch, too. "Gimme your ride, Far."

"Custom wheels, man, don't dent the fender," the boy cautioned, hopping into a bedside chair and flipping on the TV remote.

"You've obviously never seen me drive." Starsky executed a flawless wheelie, to the admiration of his teenaged audience, spinning the chair around so he was headed out into the hallway.

A loud noise, almost like a gunshot, stunned all three of them. For a moment Starsky wanted to believe that it came from the TV, but he knew differently. The sound had emanated from somewhere near the nurses' station.

"Stay here," he barked, changing back into a cop as fast as Superman in a phone booth. "I'll be back."

It was one of those seminal moments when a boring day transformed into the kind of afternoon TV movie writers base their scripts on. Propelling himself forward at all speed, Starsky made the distance in a flash, coming around the corner of the desk with a squeak of rubber. Calliope, her blue eyes as wide with shock, gave an echoing squeal, scrambling to her feet so quickly she knocked over her own chair. Standing in the small area between the ward clerk's desk and the nurse's station were three men, two of them holding guns.

Starsky stopped his forward motion by grabbing his wheels, burning the pads of his fingers. No need to ask who the invaders were, he recognized Vinnie Schroeder instantly. The other two were unknown factors, but if they had allied themselves with Schroeder, they couldn't be trusted. One of them, a lumbering hulk of a man with stitches running from hairline to jaw, had a Saturday night special trained on Mika and Gemma while his partner was busily severing phone lines with a scalpel blade.

"Mika?" Starsky asked, immediately calculating the number of patients and nurses on the floor versus three dangerous fugitives from the prison ward who all had guns. As far as he knew, there were 8 cancer patients, four nurses, and Calliope on the Rose Tree Unit, and with any luck a house keeper of some sort. Unfortunately, that meant mostly women, a little girl, three guys with only one and a half legs each, and an 80 year-old man. Starsky wasn't enough of a chauvinist to dismiss any imput from the females, but the odds looked pretty dismal.

"David, go back to your room," Gemma answered instead.

Mika, her jaw tight, just nodded and pointed back the way he had come, which was not his room. "Security is aware there's a problem."

"Starsky?" Schroeder shifted his focus from the nurses, swiveling the gun towards his new prey. Despite a large bandage wrapping his left shoulder and upper arm, he didn't seem to be having any problem holding the gun. Starsky hoped his wound opened up and started to bleed. "Hey, pig, long time no see. Guess I really knocked you off your feet, huh?" he jeered.

"You got off on the wrong floor, Schroeder," Starsky said as casually as possible. "Murderers belong on the fourth with the rest of the vermin." Hutch had always accused him of letting his mouth run away with him. One of the other vermin finished slicing his way through phone cords, and took a swing at Starsky. Under the circumstances, such a blow could have knocked him senseless, but Starsky darted the wheelchair back with a single revolution of the wheels, narrowly avoiding the meaty fist.

"Shithead, get back here. Keep the exits covered. Nobody gets off this floor alive until we get a decent ride and some cash."

"Go to your room, David," Mika said more urgently, and he got the message that time. She wanted him on the offensive, out of the eyes of these three goons. But how? Even if the hospital security had already been called, they were next to useless. Not allowed to carry guns, they had a tendency to stand back and watch the action until BCPD arrived. Unfortunately, in this situation, they probably couldn't even get onto the floor in the first place. Starsky had no doubt that Schroeder was smart enough to have blocked the exits. There were only four ways to get on or off this floor, the two main elevators and the stairwells at each end. Since Schroeder's little band of merry makers hadn't walked past Jeremy's door, they must have used the stairwell from the far end of the third floor, beyond Calliope's desk and the extra therapy rooms. The only patient rooms in that direction were the special isolation rooms for people requiring bone marrow transfusions. Luckily, all four were unoccupied this week, since Angel Conway had gone home after going into full remission.

"Losing a leg drain all the fight outta you, pig?" Schroeder taunted.

Damping down on his rage, Starsky ducked his chin in a defensive posture. "Yeah," he said softly, turning the wheelchair around in a tight circle. Shithead was halfway down the hall, opposite Jeremy's room, and Starsky's already racing heart stuttered a couple of beats before resuming at an even faster pace.

Don't let him hurt the boys.

"Leave them out of it," Starsky warned, trying to sound cowed. "The police will be here soon…"

"Just one crip in there, like him, Schroeder," Shithead called.

One? Starsky thought worriedly.

"Looks like he's going to hurl!" Shithead laughed.

"You moron, it's a cancer ward--not a single ball left between 'em," Schroeder sneered. "Round up the rest of the nurses and lock 'em inside a room. And remember to cut the phone lines. We're only keeping one open, for the negotiations. Gonna get us a jet outta here, and a pile of cash for this bunch o'corpses."

"They're going to kill us!" Calliope wailed.

Starsky would have spun around and popped Schroeder right in the face for that one, but he needed to play the role; remain passive. Let them think he was washed up and useless until the time to strike back. He'd had seminars on hostage situations, done role playing to out-think and out-maneuver the captors. He just had to retrieve that knowledge from whatever dusty shelf almost six months of sickness and chemo therapy had stashed it.

"Found one!" Frankenstein's Hulk yelled, hauling a heavyset woman out from Sherry Martin's room.

"Get your hands off me!" Ester Hawkins cried indignantly, swatting at the man.

"Hey, you're a feisty one, old woman." Schroeder pushed his gun straight into her plush bosom, copping a feel with the other hand. "Watch your mouth or you'll be goin' home in a body bag."

"Why--huh!" Ester exclaimed, fear written plainly on her dark features.

"There's a door behind that desk. Put all three in there, with the rainbow haired ditz, too," Schroeder commanded. The Hulk pulled open the door, herding the woman inside.

"Wait a minute," Schroeder said, grabbing Mika's arm. Her eyes slid over to Starsky with a silent plea before she turned, standing up to the criminal with an iron will. Starsky was never more proud of her. Taking that as his cue, he wheeled back to Jeremy's room, still wondering where Farley had gone.

"You can't leave all these patients without nursing care," Mika insisted. "They're sick, most of them need constant monitoring."

"Well, boo hoo," Schroeder scoffed. "Ain't that a shame, they'll all have to die just a little bit sooner than expected, huh? Where'd you keep the drugs? Not any old cancer shit. Morphine, Percocet, stuff like that."

"It's locked up!" Mika said.

"Well then, give me the key, girlie, or I may have to put a bullet right through your pretty chest, and wouldn't that be a shame?"

"Take it." Mika tossed the med room keys at him.

Grimly, Starsky watched as Shithead blocked the fire door at the far end of the hall with a broom handle through the push bar. Nobody would be able to get up from the lower floors that way. The weasely-faced man poked into a few doors, but seemed satisfied that all was secure, and headed back towards the nursing station. Starsky sat his ground, guarding the entrance to room 312. Once Shithead had passed, a blond head poked out of 316, her eyepatch askew.

"Davey?" Julia's voice quavered. Starsky often read novels aloud to the girl who had already lost one eye to cancer and would probably lose the other one soon. She was teary and emotional on the calmest of days. "What's happening?"

"Julia, find Megan, and get in here," Starsky ordered tersely, holding open the door to what would be their headquarters.

In a few minutes Jeremy's room was full. Farley had hidden from Shithead in the tiny adjoining bathroom, which Starsky silently applauded. One less hostage for them to be aware of. The two girls, Julia and ten year old Megan, were terrified, and Jeremy was pale gray with mottled green overtones. Starsky had seen better color on bodies in the morgue. Not exactly a crack fighting team, but they would have to do. He had no way of knowing how the Colonel, Marian, and Sherry Martin were faring on the opposite hall.

Also, who was the one remaining nurse, and where was she?

"Farley," Starsky said briskly. "Can you navigate stairs with a crutch?"

"No problem," the boy boasted. "Me and Paolo been working on that for weeks."

Starsky explained about the broom handle through the stairwell door. "You know where the housekeepers hide their carts?"

"Across from the solarium. There's a little door between there and the supply room."

"Good, go through the junction between this side and the supply room, and hide there until you can get down the stairs safely. Get to the police, tell them Vinnie Schroeder and two other guys have Saturday night specials. You got that?"

"Got it, count on me." Farley nodded, a lanky scarecrow of a boy, far too skinny for his height, but with the determination of a pit bull. He'd survived two courses of chemotherapy, by comparison, this was nothing.

"What we need first is a diversion." Starsky surveyed his troops. Megan, in particular, had the rapt expression of an adrenaline junkie for all her earlier fear. He recognized a bit of his own need for action in her intensity.

"I can," she said, tugging at the bandana that covered her bald head. "I can throw up."

"We all can do that!" Farley scoffed.

"On cue?" Megan challenged. "And I cry good, too. My mama says I'm a regular Natalie Wood."

"I don't think that's such a good idea, sweetheart," Starsky discouraged her gently. "Those guys are pros, and really dangerous."

"What choice do we have?" Jeremy spoke up from the depths of his pillows and blankets. It was he Starsky felt most sorry for. To be feeling that bad, and be held hostage on top of it all, was like visiting hell and finding out you'd already been there.

"If I can get across to the Colonel, he and I can…" Starsky started, but Megan dashed out the door, her red headscarf floating to the floor in her wake.

"Gemma!" Megan cried, running down the hall. "Where'd you go? I gotta…"

There was the sound of spectacular retching and a nasty plop. Megan's already loud wailing turned into huge sobs.

"Gotta go." Farley sketched a quick wave, shoving the supports of the aluminum crutches around his forearms. "Back with the cops in a flash."

"This is like--uh--we have to be the heroes, huh?" Julia asked, gulping against the tears running from her undamaged eye.

"You've been a hero your whole life," Starsky assured her, listening to the sounds of Schroeder and his henchmen trying to calm the marvelous Megan. She was making enough noise to raise the dead, until Schroeder threatened to blow her brains out. Dead silence after that. Starsky's already clenched belly threatened to imitate Megan's example, but he held firm, peering out the door at the little girl. Being small, she simply ran under The Hulk's spread legs and over to Calliope's desk, disappearing under the counter. He could only hope her adrenaline would last long enough before she exhausted herself. There wasn't much meat on the tiny, bald headed child.

"You need to be the strong one right now, and stay here with Jeremy, in case he needs anything," he said sternly, but Julia nodded, her face as luminous as the moon through her tears. "I'm going to get the Colonel. Stay here, and do not go anywhere."

"You're repeating yourself, man," Jeremy teased wearily. "We'll be okay."

Megan was still leading the bad guys on a merry chase, and from the disgust in Shithead's voice, had decorated his shoes. She squealed loudly just as Starsky grabbed up the only crutch left, an old fashioned wooden one with a rubber armpit brace. He swung across the hall to the relative shelter of the passthrough between the nurse's break room and the family room. Glancing down each way like a child crossing the street, he spotted The Hulk standing guard near the nurse's station brandishing a pistol. He didn't see Megan, but her shrieks must be audible in the next county, and then heard Gemma's gentle voice cuddling her.

"Sergeant Starsky!" The Colonel beckoned from Starsky's own room.


Lying on the couch with Pansy cuddled in the curve of his knees, Hutch was feeling a bit better than the previous day, and especially the previous night when he'd gotten no sleep whatsoever. Aching joints were still being heard from, but definitely on the wane, his headache had diminished to acceptable ranges, and his appetite was improving enough that he was beginning to contemplate getting up to fix a piece of toast. But lassitude won out. He wasn't quite hungry enough to get up from the comfortable spot under Starsky's favorite afghan for a measly piece of bread and butter, especially if it meant disturbing the cat. She had gotten immensely fat over the last month and if he hadn't felt so crummy he figured he'd probably be more curious about the cause. The drone of dull afternoon TV had lulled him into a light dose.

Abruptly coming awake, Hutch wasn't at first sure why. His sudden movement startled the cat, who lumbered off the couch with a dissatisfied miow, but by then Hutch was riveted to the scene on the TV. An Asian woman with the 'do and wardrobe of a TV newsperson was talking rapidly, gesturing at a building all too familiar to Hutch.

"Police have cordoned off the building, and are in the process of trying to establish a communication with the men holding the cancer patients hostage on the third floor, known as the Rose Tree Unit." A piece of stock footage, apparently culled from some old piece featuring the hospital, showed a brief montage of the Unit featuring the ward clerk's desk and a few of the patient rooms. Hutch had to will himself to breathe, listening intently to what the reporter was saying. A crawl identified her as Nina Yee of channel 7.

"According to hospital sources, three armed men stormed onto the third floor from the prison ward on the fourth floor, and took over the Rose Tree Unit at about three thirty this afternoon. One of the patients, a Farley Ryge, managed to elude his captors and escape unseen. He told police that Vinnie Schroeder, a drug dealer suspected of murdering his girlfriend Emerald Hsieh, the sister of Supervisor Adrianna Michaelson-Hsieh's husband Cam Yin, had threatened nurses and cancer patients alike. Two other men, both patients who had been incarcerated with Schroeder on the fourth floor, were with him, and all were armed. Schroeder was injured in a shoot-out with Cam Yin Hsieh only two days ago, and police arrested him after a prolonged manhunt. The names of the patients on the Rose Tree Unit have not been released until family members are apprised of the situation."

His heart trying to climb out of his mouth, Hutch had a moment of panic, not sure what was the best course of action. Call the precinct first, see what Dobey knew, or just drive down to St. Joseph's? He was on his feet to go get clothes when the phone rang, rattling his already shredded nerves.

"Hello!" he shouted.

"Hutchinson," Dobey said tersely, and the sound of his superior's voice helped lower Hutch's tension level.

"Starsky's one of the hostages?" Hutch asked, his anger spilling over into his words.

"Yes, from what we can determine there are seven patients…"

"Captain, I'll be down there in ten minutes. Apprise me then," Hutch barked. He couldn't think, couldn't let himself imagine what was going on in that pleasant, homey unit. Moving solely on instinct, he dressed quickly and left, flu symptoms completely submerged by his concerns for the people Vinnie Schroeder had taken hostage.

The road in front of St. Joseph's was cordoned off, blocked by what seemed like dozens of police and emergency vehicles. Ringing the perimeter were the hordes of news crews who converged on any tragedy, bringing it immediately to the public's eye. Hutch hardly saw any of them, bursting through the lines of uniformed cops with steely determination. Luckily, two of his former cadets were holding the on-lookers back and recognized him, letting him through to the main staging area without delay.

"Detective Sergeant Ken Hutchinson," Hutch identified himself to a short, rotund man behind the SWAT van. He only vaguely recognized the cop, who was from the precinct bordering his own. Technically, St. Joseph's lay in their vicinity, but because the entire Los Angeles county used the hospital for wounded or sick prisoners, Hutch had authority to be there. "What's the plan?"

"We've established a phone dialogue with Schroeder," Ed Crais said in his brusque clipped manner. "He wants the usual--money and a jet to the Islands."

"Got a sense of humor, huh?" Hutch said without any trace of a smile. "How are the patients?"

"He says they have 12 hostages, but didn't specify how many patients and nurses." Crais lit a cigarette, pulling in a lungful of smoke. "The kid who came out the back way said he thinks there are seven patients--two of 'em really sick."

Thank God Starsky was as healthy as he'd been in months. "I want to talk to Farley Ryge, is it?" Hutch turned, searching the surrounding area for the boy, but didn't see anyone who appeared to be the right age. "What about the rest of the hospital? Are you planning on evacuating?"

"Not now. There's only three gunmen. If we can get out team up on the roof and have them come down from above, we can get a shot at them easy enough."

"There must be other options."

"Not from where I stand, bucko," Crais all but sneered, flicking cigarette ash to the ground. "The kid's in the Red Cross van over there. Stay out of the way of my team."

Yeah, just watch me, Hutch wanted to say, but he didn't. Discretion was his watchword until he could come up with something better than blasting through the hospital endangering patient's lives. Feeling the warm metal of his wedding ring like it was a physical manifestation of Starsky, he stared up at the blank windows of the third floor, wondering where his partner was just then.


Starsky watched the TV without speaking, the picture on the small screen mocking him. Cameras were trained on the front of the hospital, practically looking right through the window of the room he was standing in, but there was no way he could signal them, or use them to his advantage. Abruptly the scene changed to a short, stout man smoking a cigarette. He gave a brief statement to the press, stressing the importance of getting the hostages out safely, at all costs, and that they would not be lenient to the kidnappers. Then, in the unfeeling way of television, a commercial for hemorrhoid cream followed immediately.

"Sergeant?" The Colonel broke into Starsky's thoughts.

"Yes, sir." He straightened his spine.

"I feel an all out strike is our best offense."

"I agree, Colonel." Starsky kept one eye on the door. Luckily, Shithead was patrolling the hallway, and apparently didn't seem to find the need to part the privacy curtain around the bed and check on the inhabitants of room 307. Since Starsky's room was furthest from the nurse's station, they had gone undisturbed for the better part of an hour. Megan had finally been corralled, and locked into the nurse's break room with Mika, Gemma and Ester. Sherry Martin, rising to the occasion, had made a brief foray down the hall, when Shithead was over on the children's side, and discovered that a tiny Asian nurse named Do Trang was hiding out in Marian's room to watch over the comatose woman. Starsky worried that her brave stance might get her shot, but he admired her determination to stand by her charge.

Using the supply room as an arsenal, Starsky had stocked his pockets with everything lethal he could come up with, and had piled the results on his bed. He and the Colonel had divided the spoils between them. Both carried a scalpel and scissors. Sherry was piling bags of IV fluid into a heap by the door for ammunition. Now all they needed was opportunity. Starsky had the bad feeling that the SWAT teams he'd glimpsed on TV were even now sneaking in through whatever access they could, to shower the place with bullets. This, in his opinion, was to be avoided at all costs. Too much danger of stray bullets hitting one of his friends.

Not for the first time he wished Hutch were right next to him, to shoulder half the burden. He could almost feel his presence, urging him to be cautious, but also to do what needed to be done. He looked back at the TV mounted high on the wall, frowning. If only he could signal those people below. He wanted to mount an attack on the invaders, but it would help a great deal if he knew where the three of them were, to utilize his small army as efficiently as possible.

"Sherry," Starsky said, catching the tall, slender woman's attention. She wore a silk scarf tied gypsy style around her head, which, combined with the paisley bathrobe she wore, made him think of a fortuneteller. "You said you had some marking pens?"

'Yes, in my pocket." She pulled out a handful of colored pens. "I was planning to sketch the ocean from the bay window at the far side of the unit this morning. For some reason, it helps me ignore the nausea."

"Have I got a job for you." Starsky grinned ferally, yanking the plain white sheet off of his bed.


Under any other circumstances, Hutch would have enjoyed meeting one of Starsky's friends whom he'd heard so much about. As it was, he was surprised at how ordinary Farley Ryge looked. Except for his baldness, he seemed like any other 14 year old. Sweat pants and a huge T-shirt emblazoned with the tour schedule for Bon Jovi disguised his thin frame, and he was wolfing down some cookies in the Red Cross van when Hutch found him. The only other person in the large vehicle was a woman wearing a Red Cross badge, watching a portable TV.


"Hey, you're Hutch," Farley said with a certain awe in his voice. "I've seen your picture--and you were on TV when you collared Schroeder."

"Which seems to have come around to bite us in the butt," Hutch muttered. He put out a hand, shaking Farley's bony one. "Nice to meet you. Starsky tells me you play a mean game of Donkey Kick."

"Donkey Kong, man."

"I keep forgetting that," Hutch said mildly, having made the gaff deliberately to put the boy at ease. Despite his casual slouch, Farley looked far from calm. He had that strained, pinched expression Hutch often saw on accident survivors. "Is there anything you can tell me?"

"I told that Lieutenant Crais guy everything I can remember." Farley shrugged.

"Starsky was like--you know, totally in charge. He knew what to do. I went out the back, by the stairs near the solarium."

"I know that door."

"This guy put a broom handle through the pushbar, but I took it out," Farley said proudly. "He probably put it back, though. I don't know how anybody's gonna get back in there." His teenaged pride had held the fear at bay up until then, but just the memory of his flight to safety must have brought it back because Farley's voice squeaked up half an octave, and he fell silent.

"Farley?" From behind them, a woman's voice broke Farley's composure and he started to cry.

"Mom?" In a moment a plump woman with matte black hair had her arms wrapped around the boy, both of them crying.

"The police called me," Mrs. Ryge kept repeating, kissing her son's head reverently. "They said you were so brave."

"Mom!" Farley wiped tears from his eyes, gathering himself together. He glanced over at Hutch. "This is Starsky's friend. They're cops, like in Miami Vice."

"Your son was indeed brave," Hutch agreed. "It's not many people who could have snuck out past gunmen like he did."

"Thank you so much," Mrs. Ryge gushed, still petting her son's arm. "Will the others be getting out soon?"

"That's the plan," Hutch said evasively. "Farley, do you remember anything else?"

"I never saw Schroeder." Farley bit his lip. "I was hiding in the bathroom when one of 'em searched Jeremy's room. He never saw me."

"Quick thinking."

"Yeah, but maybe I could have helped more, you know? Like describe the other two guys?"

"I'm sure the hospital has records of who was up on the prison ward with Schroeder," Hutch assured, disappointed nonetheless. He'd hoped Farley could give him some pertinent tidbit that would mean something just to him, and not to Crais. Questioning the boy was getting them nowhere, but he didn't know what else to do. "You escaped with details the police needed, and did it safely. That's the important thing."

"I'm just worried about Jeremy. He wasn't looking too hot. And the old lady in 303. I think she was dying this morning. The nurses were really busy." He chewed on his lip again, turning away from his mother and Hutch, then stiffened, pointing. "Look at the TV!"

The Red Cross woman cried out in surprise, pointing as Farley was. On the screen was a picture of a third floor window. A sheet had been hung over the curtain rod, with the message 'Call Schroeder on the phone at 5:15" printed in crooked green letters.

Hutch laughed. Starsky must have a plan.


With his back pressed against the wall Starsky didn't have to rely on the crutch for balance, and he allowed himself a moment to rest. He was beyond tired. A week flat on his back on the couch was beginning to sound pretty good again. His head ached, his belly churned, and worst of all the phantom pain in his foot had decided to cramp up into what felt like a tight ball of misery. He'd been warned right up front about the phantom pain. Even before the surgery, a pain specialist had come in to explain about the poorly understood phenomenon, but hearing a dry recitation of the symptoms and experiencing them were two different things entirely. He remembered dismissing the warning, figuring on a little achiness below his knee, not very real cramps that wouldn't go away.

Willing himself into a calmness that had no basis in reality, but helped nonetheless, Starsky shrugged the old fashioned crutch back into his armpit, waiting for the signal. His troops were in readiness. All the wandering he'd done in the last few weeks, prowling the ward, learning the shortcuts to get from his corridor to the children's side, finding out where the nurses stashed their candy; it had all paid off. He knew the Rose Tree Unit so well he'd kept the kidnappers bamboozled now for over an hour and a half without one of them seeing him or the Colonel sneaking about.

Starsky was once again in the opposite hall, near Jeremy's room. Julia stood just inside the door, with her good eye to the space between the barely open door and the wall, poised to do her part. Giving her an encouraging smile, Starsky started walking toward the nurse's station, his whole body tingling with repressed adrenaline. Even so, the ringing phone seemed louder and shriller than on any ordinary day.

"You got my jet?" Schroeder demanded aggressively into the receiver.

With Schroeder momentarily distracted, Starsky called out, "Hey, Shithead, the SWAT guys are coming up the back stairs!"

Meaty fists clenched, the vermin came down the hall at a run. Starsky used his crutch like a battering ram, shoving the rubber tipped end into his beer gut just as Julia threw a bag of lactated ringers down the hall like a water balloon, smashing him right in the face. Shithead hit the wall, stunned, as Julia lobbed another IV bag at him. The second one knocked him to the ground and she giggled triumphantly.

Taking one minute to remove the barricade keeping the nurses and Megan in the break room, Starsky shooed them out. "Go, go! The door near the solarium--tell the cops we're taking back the hospital."

The women streamed past him, but Mika and Gemma separated, going for their charges while Ester and Calliope went after Megan. Tossing Mika a length of tubing, Starsky whispered, "Tie his hands before he can get up." She paused for half a second, but went resolutely to her job, tying the knot like a surgeon finishing off a line of sutures. From the other hall, Starsky could hear sounds of a struggle, proving that the Colonel and Sherry were doing their part with Frankenstein's Hulk.

"Fucking cops!" Schroeder slammed down the handset. "Cosgrove! Where'd you get to?"

Hoping that the drug dealer would come this way, so Starsky would have a chance to wreak a little personal revenge, he skirted the now struggling criminal on the floor and walked out to where Schroeder could see him. "Looking for your henchmen, Vinnie? They're not gonna be much help to you, and the cops'll be here any minute." He smiled lazily, feeling cocky. "You could just give yourself up right now."

The only thing Starsky didn't want to deal with was Schroeder's pistol. Taking a stance like the Karate Kid going into his one legged crane, Starsky swung his crutch, glancing it off the barrel of the gun as Schroeder turned the weapon on him. The gun flipped out of Schroeder's hand, and amazingly, over the top of the nurse's station onto a pile of patient charts.

"You never did know when to give up!" Schroeder snarled, lunging at Starsky. The attack was too sudden and Starsky's balance wasn't that good without support. Schroeder crashed into him, sending them both over a metal cart parked near the med room door.

Starsky felt a sharp pain shoot through his left side, but he rolled to protect his abdomen, kicking back at Schroeder while reaching out blindly with his right hand. Closing his fingers around smooth wood, Starsky gasped when Schroeder punched him hard in the kidneys. He was used to working through pain, though, and scrabbled across the linoleum to get a better grip on the crutch. Behind him he could hear a commotion, voices raised and the thunder of trampling feet, but Starsky stayed focused. With his breath wheezing in his chest, he evaded another punch from Schroeder, and swung around, the weight of the crutch giving him counterbalance. With a jarring blow, he nailed Schroeder in the knee, shattering his kneecap.


Starsky would have bounced, but the gurney he was sitting on wasn't the softest, and his ribs did hurt. Still zinging with left over adrenaline from the afternoon's action, he'd been waiting in the Rose Tree examination room since Mika left him. She had given him the once over before she left to give her story to the police. Starsky suspected he would have to take his turn soon, but because of his status as a cancer patient, he'd been isolated from the hordes now crowding the unit's halls. By total coincidence, both the attending doctor, Ellen Weaver, and Lynwood, the oncology fellow for the day, had been taking a late lunch together when the kidnappers arrived. Once Dr. Weaver arrived back on the unit she had hustled all the immuno suppressed patients back to their rooms, ordering the investigating officers to conduct all questioning of witnesses with medical personnel present. After hearing that there hadn't been a single doctor around during the crisis, the hospital administrators immediately made a proclamation that there should always be a doctor on the floor at all time. Starsky wasn't sure exactly how that would have helped matters, in the long run. He looked up expectantly when the door opened, and grinned widely.

"What'd you do, break quarantine?" he asked, more glad than he could say to see his partner.

"How bad is it?" Hutch asked tightly, pointing to the blossoming bruises on his side.

"Mika thinks it's a cracked rib."


"Feels like two," Starsky admitted with a wince.

"You are so lucky. If it weren't for that, I'd beat the shit out of you. What the hell were you thinking?"

"That I was a cop."

That simple statement doused Hutch's anger like water on a flame. "You are a cop."

"I got him, Hutch, tricked the bastard and took him down. No gun, no cuffs, just a trusty crutch. You oughta start carrying one in the trunk of your car."

"I'm getting out of this racket, remember?" Hutch molded his hand to Starsky's cheek, stroking his thumb across Starsky's bottom lip.

"Tennis racket would work, too," Starsk added mischievously, still aglow with his success.

"Stop that racket while I'm kissing you," Hutch insisted, suiting action to his words.

"Hutch--it felt so good, though!"

"I should hope so."

"Not that," Starsky grinned and kissed him back quickly, joy bubbling out of him like a boiling pot of water. "Catching the bad guys! Gettin' in on the action. I was slick, man. I want t'go back to work."

"What?" Hutch asked incredulously.

"This could really work, I'm tellin' you! We'd be terrific together. If nobody ever spotted us for cops before, think what kind of a disguise this is!" Starsky patted his truncated thigh. "I'm not good on the running and jumping stuff, but I can go low--real low, keep my eyes open…"

"You're higher than a kite."

"Natural high, it's great stuff. Better'n chocolate."

"Better than sex?"

"Well…" Starsky took a deep breath, forgetting the ribs in his excitement. He wrapped his right arm around his torso, splinting his chest. "Damn."

"Hurt, did it?" Hutch asked dryly, easing Starsky's arm up slightly and very gently palpating the bruised area. Starsky gasped at the contact, Hutch's hand cool on his warm skin. It would have felt a lot better if he wasn't so battered. "Bones don't shift when you breathe, and you're talking a mile a minute, so it can't be that bad. Might not even be cracked, more like deep bruising."

"Well, well, well, where did you get your medical degree, Dr. Hutchinson?" John Davies asked from the door, a smile ruining the stern tone. "I can't take a day off without all hell breaking loose around here?"

"Just trained under the accident prone one here." Hutch lightly flicked Starsky's knee.

"Am not," Starsky said, all but pouting. His enthusiasm had fled abruptly with the renewed pain, and the memory of all that had transpired between 3:30 and 5:30. Thoughts of his valiant troops assailed him, and he was astonished that he'd been so cavalier as to forget the other patients for even a short time. "John, how's Marion?"

Washing his hands, Davies shook his head sadly. "She died--just after four, as far as Do can tell."

"Would she…?" Starsky asked, stricken. "Could she have survived if they hadn't…?"

"I wasn't with her this morning, but Ellen Weaver's notes aren't encouraging. She was probably already dying, Starsky," John said regretfully. "Let me take a look at your war wounds."

"First fill me in on everybody else. Was the Colonel ok? He was going like gangbusters, and Farley!" He hitched a breath, rubbing his side. "He was brave, huh, Hutch?"

"Starsky, I can put a thermometer in your mouth to shut you up," John threatened. "I need to listen to your breathing."

"Farley said you were totally in charge," Hutch answered. "The kid was great. All of you were."

"Megan is soundly asleep, according to Gemma, completely knocked out from what sounds like quite a performance. Julia is talking a blue streak to the police, more than I've ever heard her say at one time, ever." John smiled, placing the stethoscope on Starsky's chest. "You get the rest after I do my job. Take a deep breath."

Starsky complied with a wince, waiting fairly impatiently for the examination to finish. Now that his burst of energy was draining away, he felt exhausted, lightheaded, and in pain from a variety of sources. Amazingly, the agonizing phantom cramp that had bothered him earlier was completely gone. A small relief, but welcome, nonetheless.

"Your lungs sound clear, but I'll wait for an x-ray. Did Mika give you anything for pain?"


"I'll order something for the next day or two. Then see how it goes." John scribbled down his observations on the patient chart.

"I'm going home on Friday," Starsky said petulantly. He saw Hutch begin to speak and stop. Starsky glared at him.

"Not now," the doctor answered, still writing.

"John!" Starsky protested, anger flaring up like a white flame in his chest. "I did everything, followed every damned rule you made to get outta of this place!"

"And now you're banged up, and if you keep shouting, it will hurt worse," Davies said reasonably. "Do you want to hear about the rest of your merry band of men, Robin Hood?"

"Even if he doesn't, I do," Hutch spoke up.

"Traitor," Starsky hissed.

"The Colonel says Starsky made an excellent second in command. He and Sherry used several lengths of IV tubing tied together to trip up their man, then apparently threatened him with a scalpel." Davies shook his head in wonderment. "I'll be looking at all the stuff in the supply room with a different eye from now on."

"Farley, Julia, Megan, The Colonel, Sherry, Marian…" Starsky swallowed against the pain that lodged in his throat at the thought of the brave woman who had faced her brain tumor and lost. "And Jeremy?'

"Resting as comfortably as anyone can on the regime of chemo he's on," John said. "But he said to tell you he hadn't had such excitement since his older brother took him on a camping trip and they encountered a bear. Could be a compliment, but I'm not sure."

"The kid was sick as a dog but he never complained," Starsky said softly. "Can I go back to my room? Hutch, too?"

"In as much as you've thrown my quarantine completely out the window, I guess that would be the best thing," Davies turned, regarding Hutch with a practiced eye. "How are you feeling? Heard the current strain going around is a doozy."

"Nothing about two days of sleep won't cure," Hutch waved away the concern. "I can sleep here better than at home, to be truthful."

"Get back to your room, then," Davies ordered genially. "I'll send Mika over with something for the pain, Starsky."

"It's not so bad," Starsky lied, then groaned when he climbed off the exam table, his muscles screaming from the twisting motion. Hutch took his arm, steadying him, and Starsky was never so grateful for that small gesture of support. Biting back another moan, he relented to the wheelchair Hutch had positioned right in front of him.

"Starsky, thank you," John Davies said, rubbing the small of his back without seeming to notice he was doing it.

"I was just doin' my job," Starsky answered. He was silent as Hutch took the chair on a round-about route to room 307, to avoid the police still combing the unit. In that short space of time, Starsky felt something elemental drop into place, balancing his psyche in a way that was healing and powerful. "Hutch?"


Starsky could hear, for the first time since Hutch had arrived, how tired he sounded. Hutch shouldn't even have been off his sickbed, yet here he was pushing a wheelchair, and assuming the burden of provider, once again. Things would be different once Starsky got back home. "I could still do the job, couldn't I?"

"You proved that well enough today, slugger."

"I didn't mean to prove anything to anybody. I just wanted to be a cop," Starsky took a careful breath in, panting against the sharp pain under his left arm. "I still am a cop. I thought that losing my leg would take away who I am, but it didn't."

Hutch set the hand brake on the chair, coming around to squat down so he was level with Starsky. "The person I loved never changed, Starsk."

"But I thought I had--until today, I thought that part of me was gone." Starsky grit his teeth, warring with the tears welling in his eyes. "I-I know I can't go back, there's no point in that, but I still am a cop."

"You are," Hutch whispered, pulling Starsky forward. The transfer of weight nearly bowled Hutch over, but he staggered, then lifted Starsky up in his arms.

"Put me down, you'll drop me!"

"Nope, but you've definitely gained weight, Rocky." Hutch settled on the bed, gathering Starsky closer up on his lap. "I hated being out there looking in. I think now I know what it feels like to be a cop's wife."

"You're the wife?" Starsky swallowed, knuckling away the stray tears that had escaped. "Cause I sure felt like that th'other day when you went after Schroeder."

"Then we're even," Hutch said lightly, playing with the curls at the back of Starsky's neck.

Starsky turned his face into Hutch's shoulder, relishing the warmth and safety that surrounded him. He wanted to melt into that strength, wallow in the love for a couple of hours and forget the hospital, the cancer and, most of all, Vinnie Schroeder. "I wanted to hurt him bad."

"Mission accomplished, Mr. Phelps."

"I wanted to give him cancer," Starsky whispered into Hutch's warm neck, ashamed of the intensity of his hate for Schroeder. Rationally, he knew the man hadn't had anything to do with the abnormal cells in his bones, but he would always link the drug dealer with his diagnosis.

"I know," Hutch said, tightening his hold.

When Mika came in to administer Starsky's pain pills and take him off to x-ray, she found the two of them curled around each other, asleep.


The next few days were a blur of interviews and frequent visitors. The Rose Tree Unit had never been so busy with all the constant comings and goings of police, TV people and newspaper reporters. Cancer patients taking on three armed felons was big news, and the media coverage was extensive. Even with the restrictions imposed due to the Rose Unit Six's medical needs, most of them got their moment of fame in either the daily paper, or on local and national chat shows. Tom Brokaw did an edition of his news show from the lobby of the hospital, talking to the Colonel and Farley Ryge.

Starsky tried to stay under the media radar, having had his fill of being misquoted in his years on the force. Even so, his picture was on the front page of the Bay City Chronicle and the LA Times on Thursday morning. The wire services picked up the story, bringing in attention from all over the U. S. Nick Starsky called from prison, because he'd seen the Brokaw show and now wanted the full scoop from his famous brother. Their grocer, Perry, phoned to say he wanted his copy of the Times autographed and framed so he could boast about his famous clientele. When Daisy heard about this, she wanted one, too, for the bakery.

"I've never even been to Daisy's place!" Starsky laughed, signing two copies of the article anyway. "Nick called this morning, when you were at the academy."

"Yeah?" Hutch asked evasively. "What he have to say?"

"He's getting out, y'know that? Good behavior!"

Hutch hesitated, never quite sure what to say about Starsky's wayward brother. He'd never really liked Nick's slick, con artist style, but since he was family, Hutch had always forced himself to be civil, if not totally friendly. Starsky had been devastated when his 'baby brother' was indicted for numbers running, extortion and illegal gambling, earning himself five years in prison. He'd served roughly three, so far. Hutch trusted Nick's good behavior about as far as he could throw it, but vowed to be happy because Starsky was. "Good news. Did you tell him you were being sprung in the morning, too?"

"He didn't know I'd been here so long." Starsky shrugged. "I wrote him, but maybe he forgot."

Because the last time he called you were in surgery, Hutch wanted to shout, but he didn't. Starsky deserved better than the schmuck he had for a sibling.

"D'you think Nick could come out? T'visit before…" Starsky fiddled with the pen he was holding, doodling on a pad of paper. He drew a series of spirals, then sketched out a long dark rectangle, and Hutch had a sudden overwhelming sense of the whole room tilting, of himself sliding forward, the floor rushing toward him. His vision darkening, he sucked in huge quantities of air, just managing to avoid passing out completely.

"Hutch?" Starsky was shouting when Hutch finally felt the ground firmly under his feet again. He was hanging onto the arms of the chair, his fingers aching from the strain, and from all appearances, hadn't actually pitched onto the linoleum, but it had been a near thing. "You're white as a ghost, what the hell happened?" Starsky demanded, looking pretty pale himself.

Still trying to regain his equilibrium, Hutch wasn't entirely sure. Then he saw the coffin Starsky had drawn, and closed his eyes. "I'm afraid of being alone."

"Aw, Hutch," Starsky said, and they both jumped when the pen rolled off the bed, clattering loudly when it fell to the floor. "I never planned on going first."

"Starsk, up until recently I thought the hardest thing I ever had to do was watch you being wheeled away with Jennings' poison still inside you," Hutch started slowly, his momentum building. "Then I had to drive you to the hospital, knowing you'd have your l-leg amputated in the morning. But I'm not sure I can do this. I'm so afraid of watching you die."

"Don't watch, then," Starsky said simply. "Watch me live. And live right along with me. Y'know, I've been thinking about Terry lately."

"Yeah?" Hutch nodded at the memory of the vibrant young teacher, watching Starsky through a film of tears. He hadn't planned on starting any of this, bringing up the subject of death, but it hovered over the two of them like the cartoon black cloud which only rained on Wyle E. Coyote. They always skirted around it, pretending that if it never came up in conversation, it wouldn't happen. The problem was, as Starsky's discharge came closer and closer, Hutch feared the inevitable all the more. He'd been vastly relieved when Dr. Davies postponed Starsky's going home for two days, giving him that much longer to ignore what was right above their heads.

"She thought it was silly to have a little piece of metal in her head dictate her life." Starsky had that sweet, sad smile Hutch had seen so often after Terry's death. "I couldn't even begin to fathom what she was talking about, how she could go around knowin' that she was going to die--really soon, maybe."

"Like walking on a frozen lake," Hutch said almost inaudibly, his heart breaking. "You never really know when that crack is going to shatter the ice to pieces."

"Yeah!" Starsky nodded, blinking at the tears in his eyes. "I thought that if I could keep her so still, perfectly still, in the bed, that she'd survive. It's not possible." He tucked his fingers under Hutch's, like a prairie dog burrowing into it's hole. "And I know you've got the hard part here, Hutch, but I don't know if I can cope without you."

"I'm not going anywhere," Hutch said forlornly. He thought he should give Starsky a hug, snuggle close while there was still time, but he just stayed seated by the bed, cherishing Starsky's hand curled so safely under his. If he were given three wishes right then, they'd all be for Starsky.

Give him back to me, even if I have to keep him perfectly still in bed, at least he'd be here.


Wanting to escape any media coverage of 'the first cancer patient to leave the hospital since the hostage crisis', Starsky engaged Linda and Katie in a fairly elaborate scheme to keep the reporters from knowing when he left. Really, all the nurses did was pretend Starsky was still on the floor after he'd already been discharged, but the ruse worked.

After handing out presents to all the other patients, and flowers and boxes of candy for all the nurses, Starsky was hustled down the back stairs to a lower floor and onto the freight elevator to the loading dock. Hutch had already loaded up the trunk with Starsky's accumulated detritus from nearly three months in the hospital, and driven around the back to meet his partner in relative seclusion. There was a camera crew hovering in the hospital lobby, so Hutch made doubly sure they didn't see him circling around to the loading dock.

Starsky climbed wearily into the car, automatically stowing his crutch behind the seat, and leaned his head against the headrest. "Those stairs wore me out."

"Well, you'll be glad to know you missed Donna Kelly from channel five weekend edition," Hutch said, steering out of the parking lot.

"Donna Kelly?" Starsky griped. "Didn't even rate the top brass like Cronkite? Man, I'm bushed. Wake me when we get home."

"I told you not to climb the stairs yourself, what was Linda thinking?"

"Hutch, I can walk, get over it."

Starsky never even opened his eyes when he spoke, just sighed, squirming around to get comfortable in the patched seat. Hutch had never felt so completely cut off from Starsky, and he knew it was entirely his own fault. Ever since they'd broached the whole watching-Starsky-die subject, Hutch had been sick with anxiety. They both could banter just like normal, but each word was strained, filtered through so many emotions and reactions it was exhausting to try and sort them all out. Mentally beating himself up for not being more compassionate and supportive, Hutch drove silently. He was so gripped with such fear for something that might not even happen for months that he could hardly sleep, much less breathe. The waiting was the worst, giving the immediate future a shifting murkiness where every step, every minute, held unknown dread. When would it happen? How would he react? He flashed on his mother, the epitome of propriety and proper decorum--she'd know how to act when a loved one was dying. She'd have the correct thing to say to convey all that had been left unsaid up until then.

Left unsaid. That was the gist of his fear. How did one cram a lifetime of love and commitment into so short a time? Would he be allowed time, or would the end come shockingly soon, like here in the car with Starsky looking so normal? Would he know in time?

With an ache that bored through his heart, Hutch wished he could reach out right now and hold onto what was most precious; somehow preserve some part of Starsky for ever and for always.

It wasn't possible and he despaired, turning from Magnolia Road onto Dahlia Lane. Their pretty white house sat back on a smooth green lawn that Hutch hadn't mowed, or watered, in months. He wasn't even sure he knew who had tended the grass, and was humbled by that simple act of kindness.

"S-starsk?" he called, ashamed of the revealing stutter. Starsky knew him too well. He'd be able to read the pain Hutch wanted to hide. "We're home."

"Look at that," Starsky said in wonder, rubbing his eyes. "Cherry blossoms."

Each house on Dahlia had a blooming cherry tree planted at the bottom of the lawn. The trees were in full regalia, puffed out like pink cotton candy in the warm March air. Sprinkled across many gardens were vibrant red tulips, yellow daffodils, and purple crocuses announcing the joy of Spring. Southern California might not have the obvious changes of season that Hutch remembered from his childhood in Duluth, but there were still reminders that winter had left, and Spring was bounding forth.

"I went in at Christmas time and came out just in time for the Easter bunny," Starsky said quietly, with audible regret.

"Passover and Easter come the same weekend this year, which is over a month away." Hutch spoke heartily to disguise his shakiness. "Enough time to eat a couple chocolate bunnies and all the challah you want." He walked briskly around the car, unloading the trunk with jerky, tense movements.

"You okay?" Starsky asked astutely. He'd gotten out far more quickly than Hutch expected, and was standing with one hand on the car door, looking over at Hutch with tenderness. "It's okay to feel like you do. I've had more time to get used to th'whole thing, y'know?"

"You're not supposed to be comforting me," Hutch snapped, setting a potted palm down on the sidewalk. How had Starsky collected so much junk? There were stuffed animals, stacks of 'get well' cards, a cardboard box of t-shirts he hadn't had in December, and the huge plastic storage bin full of magazines, puzzles and games. On top of Starsky's bulging duffel bag of dirty laundry Hutch placed the grimmest and most recent acquisitions; more than a dozen meds, several bags of IV fluids, "just in case he gets dehydrated", along with tubing, syringes and alcohol wipes. Hutch had learned how, and why, each were necessary, even if his heart lurched every time he looked at them.

"Why not? Cause I'm the one with actual diagnosis?" Starsky said. "You're holding yourself together with coffee and grit, Hutch. Let go, for my sake."

"Yeah, well, I've got work to do," Hutch retorted, stung nonetheless. Starsky was right, so why couldn't he relax? The need to be vigilant, to guard against attack was so strong that he couldn't drop the act even though rationally he knew he couldn’t prevent a microscopic cancer cell from taking Starsky away from him. He lugged several armfuls of stuff up to the front door before unlocking the knob and tossing the duffel bag and box of shirts inside. Pansy was sprawled on the carpet just beyond the foyer, miowing her welcome.

"Mail's here," Starsky called, peering into the box. "Don't you ever take the mail in? Must be coupla days worth crammed in here." He extracted a wad of envelopes, flipping through them. "You got a long one. From the state testing board."

Too distracted to remember why he'd received anything from that source, Hutch stopped, the sack of narcotics and other painkillers hanging limply from his hand. "For the MCAT?" he asked hollowly.

"Won't know until you open it, huh?" Starsky pressed the envelope into his hand. "C'mon in the house, open it up!"

Hutch let Starsky propel him onto the couch despite the trail of potted plants and plush toys left on the front walk. He stared stupidly at the envelope, wondering why this mattered any longer. As if his going to medical school would change anything. He'd be forty years old before he even got near a classroom, and closer to fifty before he finished his residency. Who the hell would put themselves through that when he had a fine job of teaching cadets at the academy? And Dobey wanted him to take the lieutenant's exam, a much more reasonable course of action. He'd ace the lieutenant's exam, no doubt about it. Except that there was no spark left in him for those jobs. Medical school, on the other hand, held a kind of allure, an almost palpable enticement, even in his current state of suspended animation.

"Hutch, you're killin' me here," Starsky drawled dramatically. "Open it up, or I will."

Sliding his forefinger under the flap, Hutch extracted the letter. "Testing date for the MCAT is March 25th, in Torrance. Please arrive promptly at 8 am with a number two pencil," he read aloud.

"That's terrific!" Starsky grabbed the letter, examining it with typical Starsky enthusiasm. "Hey, aren't you excited? You been studying that book since December, must have it memorized by now."

"It's…great," Hutch agreed, wondering if he had the energy to go out and pick up all the rest of Starsky's toys before the neighbor kids had a field day.

"Hutch, are you mad at me?"

"Why would I be mad at you?" Hutch asked irritably.

"Because I stopped the chemo," Starsky said in such a vulnerable voice Hutch swung around to stare at him. Starsky still looked frail. No longer bald, and no longer so thin he would have keeled over in a stiff wind, he now possessed a sort of unworldly beauty, pale skin stretched over sharply peaked cheekbones and chin. For a moment Hutch imagined he was carved out of pale pink marble, one of Michaelangelo's masterpieces.

"No, I'm not…" he started to lie, but the honest pain on Starsky's face slayed him, and he was compelled to tell the truth, as hard as it was to admit. "Yes, I'm angry."

"I won't restart the chemo."

Hutch swallowed, eviscerated yet somehow still alive. "I know. I--I'm not mad at your decision, or you, Starsk. I hate the cancer, what it's done to us. And I can't help it--maybe I shouldn't be around you right now because I feel like shit, and I'm having a hard time getting past…"

"That Davies let me out of the hospital, and now it's all on you," Starsky finished in a muted voice.

"I don't know, maybe." Hutch ground the heel of his hand into his breastbone; his heart hurt. That would just be the icing on the cake, if he had a heart attack right then and there. "Maybe I'm just not strong enough to see this through." He dropped his hand down over the edge of the couch and felt Pansy butt her head up against his palm. "I love you, Starsk."

"I love you, too." Starsky stroked Hutch's hair, his hand feather light as it slid down the back of his skull. "Life sucks and then you die, huh?"

"I thought it was 'Life's a bitch and then you die," Hutch corrected, on the verge of tears but fighting them. Pansy butted his hand again, demanding to be petted and he obliged half-heartedly, simply to appease her.

"Same difference." Starsky craned his neck to see what Hutch was doing, and chuckled low in his throat. "Hutch, when was the last time you really looked at Pansy?"

"She and I shared the same couch the other day." Hutch picked up the little cat, surprised at how truly heavy she'd become. He felt around her rotund belly as his mind struggled to accept the new information.

"Blondie, that cat ain't fat, she's…"

"Pregnant," they both said together, and in that instant Hutch felt the tension slip away, leaving him slightly giddy and light headed. There was nothing to do but live for the moment, and it appeared that at any moment they were going to be fathers of a litter of kittens.


"Number four is out!" Starsky announced in a low but triumphant voice. He'd been in complete awe for most of the evening, watching Pansy deliver four tiny bundles of mewling fur. The last one was coal black, now lying limply between his mother's paws as she briskly cleaned him up with her rough, pink tongue. The other three were already trying to nurse, their tiny brown and white heads butting their mother's round belly. "Think there are any more?"

Gently probing Pansy's still distended body, Hutch nodded. "Feels like there's a fifth one in there, but she's worn out. I hope she can manage…"

Pansy gave an agonized moan, her abdominal muscles rippling as if in response to Hutch's concern.

"Yep!" Starsky grinned. "I think I see another black one!"

"Pansy obviously cross-pollinated." Hutch laughed.

"What d'you mean?"

"Uh--when cats do it…"

"You're such a prude," Starsky teased. "'Fuck' the word you're looking for?"

"Thank you, Miss Manners," Hutch said with a supercilious air. "Every time a Tom cat pokes the queen…"

"This is giving me such ideas."

"Are you listening? Every penetration makes another kitten. And most Tom cats do it more than once. So, I'm guessing that those two," Hutch pointed to the two white ones. "Were from one cat, and the three darker ones were from another guy."

"Pansy!" Starsky chided lightly. "You're easy?" He held his breath in anticipation as a fifth ball of fur emerged wetly when Pansy gave a mighty heave. "This is just terrific! I got home in time to see this!" He held out a tentative finger to kitten number one who had stumbled drunkenly away from his mother, curling up in a compact bundle to sleep. When the kitten had settled, Starsky carefully stroked the minute skull, marveling at the angel softness of newborn fur. "Can I name him?"

"Or her," Hutch corrected. "Hard to tell at this age. Name them all." He scooted backward until he was leaning against the laundry room wall, knees drawn up under his chin.

Starsky studied his lover, worried at how tired and stressed out Hutch looked. "You never got any rest after bein' sick."

"Starsky, I bounced back. Had to."

"You didn't have to, you did it for me." Starsky worked Hutch's right cowboy boot off his foot and then the left one. He disposed of the socks by flipping them over his shoulder into the laundry hamper and began to massage Hutch's long feet, concentrating on the ball and the arch. In a matter of minutes, Hutch was purring louder than any cat.

"Starsky…" Hutch heaved a sigh, his whole body seeming to loosen up and relax. "I should be doing this for you."

"You can, later, and it'll only take half as long." Starsky quirked a grin to soften the self-deprecation. "You've been doin' too much, baby. Let me do something for you." He kneaded the curved sole with his thumbs, then lightly pulled on each toe. "Feel good?"

"Feels fantastic. Let's give Mama Pansy and her brood some bonding time so we can do a little bonding of our own."

"Never heard a better plan, but you're going to have to haul me up off the floor."

"Did you decide on names?" Hutch asked, bracing Starsky until he got a foot and crutch under him.

"Eeney, Meeny, Miney and Moe," Starsky said.

"Forgot how to count, Einstein? That's only four." Hutch held open the door to the kitchen.

"Oh, yeah." Starsky looked back at the kittens with delight. This was life. This was how mankind--and animal kind--survived. Birth and then death, on a continuous circle. No escaping the end, but the ride around the giant Ferris Wheel was seldom boring. His ride would be shorter than Hutch's, but he wasn't about to jump out of the gondola before that ride operator with the black cape and the scythe forced him to. "L'chaim--to celebrate life."

"That's the best one of all." Hutch kissed him sweetly on the lips, but suddenly Starsky was ravenous and it wasn't for food.

"Harder," he whispered. "All night long."

"We have to take it easy, neither of us is getting any younger." He towed Starsky through the house, his mood lightening with every step.

"Are you making disparaging remarks because my birthday is coming up?"

"That's what that big red circle on the calendar was for!" Hutch feigned surprise, pulling Starsky onto their bed.

"Did you get me a present yet?" Starsky asked, yanking on the tail of Hutch's button down shirt to pull it free of his slacks.

"I've been kind of busy."

"Not busy enough." Starsky arched against Hutch, their groins aligning like two heat seeking missiles. "I think I can find something for you to do." He wanted sex, but his body was achy and tired after a full day, and little Davey wasn't responding as quickly as Starsky had hoped. He reached down towards Hutch's fly to liberate the more willing participant.

"Wait, it's my turn to give you a massage." Hutch ran his hands along Starsky's spine to demonstrate.

"I only did your feet," Starsky protested, but willingly lay down on his belly, the soft comforter inviting him to stretch out. Hutch worked Starsky's t-shirt over his head but suddenly Starsky could feel every one of the bumps and bruises acquired in the last few days, and his energy was waning rapidly. "You'll put me right to sleep, y'know, and then we won't have any fun."

"I'll still have some fun," Hutch said. "Does this still hurt?" He gently palpated the greenish-brown bruise that encompassed Starsky's left rib cage.

"Just don't rub too hard there," Starsky warned, trying to breathe through the brief spasm that caught him unawares. "Go further down…" He sighed in total bliss when Hutch began to knead the muscles of his lower back, using his palms like rolling pins. Hutch had always had a definite talent for back rubs. Starsky let out all his latent tensions, melting into a warm puddle under Hutch's skillful manipulations. "Yeah, there…and that place, those hospital beds are murder on my…" He gasped when Hutch knuckled a particularly tight knot, which caused warm tingles to run down the full length of both Starsky's legs until his feet flexed in response. "Hutch! Do that again!" Starsky urged.

"There?" Hutch hit the exact spot unerringly, and Starsky rejoiced in the complete absence of any cramping pain in his missing left foot.

Starsky rolled over, grabbing Hutch's hands. "You found the right spot!"

"For what, Starsk?"

"My damned foot hurts all the time, like the toes are curled under and I can't straighten 'em out. You fixed that!"

"Reflexology." Hutch grinned, snaking his arms around Starsky's narrow waist and lightly probing the area just above his butt crack.


"It involves hitting certain places on the body that correspond to other areas, in just the right way." Hutch pulled Starsky forward so he was practically sitting on Hutch's lap.

"Then do some on this part here." Starsky guided Hutch's fingers back around to the front, and helped him zip down his pants. "Cause there are so many other areas that correspond to that one."

Hutch chuckled deep in his chest, and Starsky could almost feel the rumbles travel down the length of Hutch's arms and fingers, communicating that laughter to his cock and rumbling into his own battered chest. A closed current, as his old science teacher used to say. Connection of a most primal kind; touch, closeness, holding, and shelter. What a person needed to live.

"Did you know that if babies aren't held close, they could die? I…read an article…" Starsky closed his eyes, catching his breath as Hutch delicately brushed the tips of his fingers along Starsky's cock, never settling in one place, but roaming freely, stimulating sleeping nerve endings. The resulting erection was a thing of beauty: full, strong, and pulsing with blood.

"That's what I like to see," Hutch said smugly, closing the turgid muscle in his fist. "Starsky so turned on he can't speak."

"Y-you try it sometime," Starsky managed weakly, all of his senses going haywire. When Hutch licked the tip of his penis once, Starsky exploded, thrusting with exhilarating force. It hadn't felt so good in a long time.

"Relaxed now?" Hutch asked lazily, watching him. He was still playing little finger games, investigating along the ridges and valleys of Starsky's ribs and abdomen. "You're so skinny."

"Not skinny," Starsky argued with a teasing glint when he was incapable of movement. "Stream lined for more power."

"That what they're calling it these days?" Hutch kissed one brown nipple, circling the other with his thumb. "Seems strange to have that IV thing on the other side."

Starsky tucked his chin down, staring down his mapped and charted body. With forty rapidly approaching in just over three weeks time, he was nothing like the gloriously muscled specimen he'd been at 21. Scars, bruises and the subclavian IV port all marred his chest. "They moved it once when I was so out of it I didn't even remember the doctor doin' anything. Infected, or something. So now it's on the right 'stead of the left."

Hutch kissed the site, then kissed Starsky's lips, stretching out so they were close, but not totally touching along every point. "We should get ready for bed."

"We are in bed," Starsky pointed out, covering Hutch's prominent bulge with his hand. "Warm."

"Yeah, so are you. I got tired of sleeping here alone."

"When did you ever sleep here?" Starsky murmured, too content to move. "You were at the hospital nearly all the time."

"Isn't the same." Hutch sounded almost asleep.

"Won't ever be," Starsky said mournfully. He was too tired to stay awake long, but lay there for a while, staring up at the darkened ceiling, never moving his hand from its favored spot. He was never going back to the Rose Tree Unit for another stay. Doctor visits, maybe, but he wasn't ever going to let anything separate him from Hutch again. This was where he was meant to be.


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